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POOR 

PEOPLES 

MOVE¬ 

MENTS 

WHY THEY SUCCEED, 
HOW THEY FAIL ^ 



FRANCES FOX PIVEN AND 
RICHARD A. CLOWARD 


WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION BY THE AUTHORS 













POOR PEOPLE’S 
MOVEMENTS 

Why They Succeed, 
How They Fail 


by 

FRANCES FOX PIVEN 
and RICHARD A. CLOWARD 



VINTAGE BOOKS 
A Division of Random House • New York 



Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously 
published material: 

The Antioch Press: Excerpts from “Kennedy in History: An Early Appraisal” by 
William G. Carleton. Copyright © 1964 by the Antioch Press. First published in The 
Antioch Review, vol. 24, no. 3. Reprinted by permission of the editors. 

Delacorte Press: Excerpted verse from Toil and Trouble by Thomas R. Brooks. 
Copyright © 1964 by Thomas R. Brooks. Reprinted by permission of Delacorte Press. 

Fortune: Quotation from Fortune, Fall 1931. 

Greenwood Press, Inc.: Excerpt from World Revolutionary Propaganda by Harold D. 
Lasswell and Dorothy Blumenstock. Used with the agreement of the reprint publisher, 
Greenwood Press, Inc. 

Lexington Books: Bread or Justice by Lawrence Neil Bailis. Reprinted by permission 
of Lexington Books, D. C. Heath and Company, Lexington, Mass., 1974. 

Lexington Books and The Rand Corporation: Protests by the Poor by Larry R. 
Jackson and William A. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Lexington Books, D. C. 
Heath and Company, Lexington, Mass., 1974, and The Rand Corporation. 

George T. Martin, Jr.: Excerpts from “The Emergence and Development of a Social 
Movement Organization Among the Underclass: A Case Study of the National Welfare 
Rights Organization” by George T. Martin, Jr., Ph.D. dissertation, Department of 
Sociology, University of Chicago, 1972. Reprinted by permission. 

Monthly Review Press: Excerpts from Rosa Luxemburg’s Selected Writings, edited 
by Dick Howard. Copyright © 1971 by Monthly Review Press. Reprinted by permission 
of Monthly Review Press. 

The Nation: “No Rent Money . . . 1931” by Horace Cayton in the September 9, 1931, 
issue and “Labor 1975: The Triumph of Business Unionism” by B. J. Widick in the 
September 6,1975 issue. 

National Welfare Rights Organization: Excerpt from the “National Welfare Rights 
Organization Newsletter.” Reprinted by permission. 

The New American Library, Inc.: Excerpts from Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise 
of Power by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Copyright © 1966 by Rowland Evans 
and Robert Novak. Reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., 
New York, N.Y. 

The New York Times Company: Excerpt from March 6, 1930, February 2, 1932, and 
June 16, 1963, issues. Copyright © 1930, 1932, 1963 by The New York Times Company. 
Reprinted by permission. 

Radical America: “Personal Histories of the Early CIO” by Staughton Lynd from 
the May-June 1969 issue, vol. 5, no. 3. Copyright© 1969 by Radical America. 

United Auto Workers and Jane Sugar: Four lines of lyrics attributed to Maurice Sugar, 
Chief Counsel for United Auto Workers, 1937-1948. 


Vintage Books Edition, January 1979 

Copyright © 1977 by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward 

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Pub¬ 
lished in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random 
House of Canda Limited, Toronto. Originally published by Pantheon Books in November 
1977. 

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data 

Piven, Frances Fox. 

Poor people’s movements. 

Includes bibliographies and index. 

1. Labor and laboring classes—United States—Political activity— 

History. 2. Afro-Americans—Civil rights—History. 

3. Welfare rights movement—United States—History. 

I. Cloward, Richard A., joint author. II. Title. 

[HD8076.P55 1979] 322.4'4'0973 78-54652 ISBN 0-394-72697-9 

Manufactured in the United States of America 
B98765432 



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 


We would like to thank Bert DeLeeuw, Murray Edelman, 
Mark Naison, Bill Pastreich, and Howard Zinn for reading 
and commenting on this manuscript at various stages in its 
preparation. And our particular thanks to S. M. Miller, who 
both encouraged us to write this book and introduced us to 
George Wiley. 




CONTENTS 


INTRODUCTION ix 

Chapter 1 The Structuring of Protest 1 

Chapter 2 The Unemployed Workers’ Movement 41 

Chapter 3 The Industrial Workers’ Movement 96 

Chapter 4 The Civil Rights Movement 181 

Chapter 5 The Welfare Rights Movement 264 

INDEX 363 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS 383 




Introduction to the 
Paperback Edition 


In the reviews that appeared during the interval between the publica¬ 
tion of the hardcover and the paperback editions of Poor People’s 
Movements, a number of critics took issue with some of the conclu¬ 
sions we reached. In this brief introduction to the paperback edition, 
we take the opportunity of continuing the debate. 1 

Perhaps the singular contribution of the intellectual tradition of the 
left, as it has developed since the nineteenth century, has been to bring 
working-class people fully into history, not simply as victims but as 
actors. The left has understood that working-class people are a his¬ 
torical force and could become a greater historical force. And the left 
has understood that the distinctive form in which that force expresses 
itself is the mass movement. 

In theory, the left has also understood that working-class movements 
are not forged merely by willing or thinking or arguing them into 
existence. Proletarian movements, Marx said, are formed by a dialecti¬ 
cal process reflecting the institutional logic of capitalist arrangements. 
The proletariat is a creature, not of communist intellectuals, but of 
capital and the conditions of capitalist production, a point emphasized 
in the Communist Manifesto: 

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the 
same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, de¬ 
veloped ... [and] ... not only increases in number; its strength grows, 
and it feels that strength more.... Of all the classes that stand face to 


lThe following reviews are referred to in the text: Jack Beatty, The Nation, October 8, 
1977; J. Barton Bernstein, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 27, 1978; Carol 
Brightman, Seven Days, January 1978; Michael Harrington, The New York Times Book 
Review, December 11, 1977; E. J. Hobsbawm, The New York Review of Books, March 23, 
1978; and Paul Starr, Working Papers, March/April 1978. 




Introduction 


x 


face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revo¬ 
lutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the 
face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential 
product. 

Of course, historical developments frustrated Marx’s prediction: ex¬ 
panding capitalist production did not create a revolutionary pro¬ 
letariat. 

Still, the basic mode of dialectical analysis underlying the failed 
prediction—the idea that the struggles of ordinary people are both 
formed by and directed against institutional arrangements—is correct. 
The prediction failed because Marx did not anticipate the specific in¬ 
stitutional patterns which evolved under modern capitalism, nor did 
he anticipate the particular forms of struggle which would be gen¬ 
erated in reaction to them. These institutional arrangements inhibited 
the emergence of a unified and revolutionary working class: the spread 
of imperialism helped to produce the surpluses that would raise work¬ 
ing-class material standards in the mother countries; the balkanization 
of modern industry helped to fractionalize the working class; new 
institutions such as public education helped to ensure capitalistic 
ideological hegemony. In turn, these institutional arrangements 
shaped the character of working-class resistance. Contemporary work¬ 
ing-class struggles are fragmented where the left wishes for unity, and 
working-class demands are reformist where the left prescribes a radical 
agenda. 

But the intellectual left has failed to confront these developments 
fully, at least in its posture toward movements in industrial societies . 2 
It has failed to understand that the main features of contemporary 
popular struggles are both a reflection of an institutionally determined 
logic and a cnallenge to that logic. It has clung instead to the specific 
nineteenth-century content of the dialectic, and by doing so, has 
forfeited dialectical analysis. Insofar as contemporary movements in 
industrial societies do not take the forms predicted by an analysis of 
nineteenth-century capitalism, the left has not tried to understand 
these movements, but rather has tended simply to disapprove of them. 
The wrong people have mobilized, for they are not truly the industrial 


2 By contrast, left-wing analyses of peasant movements are oriented precisely toward 
understanding the influence of specific societal arrangements on those movements, with 
a measure of insight that perhaps benefits from the relative absence of nineteenth- 
century Marxist thought on the subject. See, for example, Erich R. Wolf, Peasant Wars of 
the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), or James C. Scott, The 
Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976). 




xi 


Introduction 


proletariat. Or they have mobilized around the wrong organizational 
and political strategies. The movements of the people disappoint the 
doctrine, and so the movements are dismissed. 

In writing this book, we tried to set aside doctrines in order to 
examine some of the ways in which the specific features of American 
social structure have shaped working-class movements. We were con¬ 
cerned to identify the institutional conditions which sometimes make 
mass movements possible, the institutional conditions which deter¬ 
mine the forms taken by mass movements, and the institutional 
conditions which determine the responses of elites. We were led to 
these concerns by what we thought were the inadequacies of existing 
ways of thinking about movements. Obviously, protest movements are 
discredited in the dominant pluralistic tradition on the ground that 
there is ample opportunity for the working class to pursue its interests 
through democratic institutional channels. More to our point, many 
on the left also discredit these movements because they fail to conform 
to doctrinal prescriptions regarding constituencies, strategies, and 
demands. But this sort of complaint typically ignores the historically 
specific circumstances in which social movements emerge and in which 
constituencies, strategies, and demands are formed. 

We are prompted to make these opening comments because so much 
of the early response to this book has been dominated by a reiteration 
of doctrinal injunctions. In effect, a number of critics undertook to 
review the movements we study, rather than our analyses, and they are 
displeased. The movements fell short of the doctrine (and so, there¬ 
fore, do we, for we are frankly sympathetic with struggles that were, 
in one respect or another, disappointing to the critics). Some critics 
were dissatisfied, for example, with the various expressions of the 
post-World War II black movement: with the civil rights struggle in 
the South, or the riots in the North, or the surging demand for public 
welfare benefits that produced a welfare explosion in the 1960s. The 
black movement is blamed for worsening divisions in the working 
class, for producing a popular backlash, and for failing to win larger 
gains, such as full employment (or even a new social order). 

But popular insurgency does not proceed by someone else’s rules or 
hopes; it has its own logic and direction. It flows from historically 
specific circumstances: it is a reaction against those circumstances, and 
it is also limited by those circumstances. One of the crucial ways in 
which the black movement was institutionally structured, and thus 
limited, was by the existence of deep racial cleavages in the American 
working class. One might wish it were otherwise; if ever there were 



Introduction 


xii 


sectors of the working class that should have been “the closest of allies/’ 
as one critic complained, it was the black and white poor. But the 
institutional development of the United States had determined other¬ 
wise, as witness the history of failed efforts to product multiracial, 
class-based protest movements. And so, when massive socioeconomic 
and political changes finally made an independent black struggle 
possible, black eruptions provoked the violent opposition of southern 
white working-class people and later the opposition of northern 
working-class people as well. No course of action available to blacks 
could have prevented the worsening of antagonisms so deeply em¬ 
bedded in the experience of the white working class. If blacks were to 
mobilize at all in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, working- 
class divisions would inevitably be widened. What, then, is the point 
of Jack Beatty’s insistence that “strategies which divide [the working 
class] are . . . dangerous”? To suggest that blacks might have done it 
differently—that they might have induced large elements of the south¬ 
ern and northern white working class to coalesce with them—without 
showing how specific institutional conditions afforded that option, is 
to assume that people are free to act without regard to the constraints 
imposed by their social context. 

Moreover, the rigid application of these doctrinal prescriptions may 
tend to obscure recognition of the longer-term implications of mass 
insurgency. The black movement, however great the immediate 
tensions it created, may have improved the possibilities for more 
broad-based working-class struggles in the future. As a result of the 
new legal accommodations forced by the movement, at least some 
aspects of the institutional framework supporting racism have been 
weakened, and while that is hardly a guarantor of future class-based 
movements, it is at least one institutional prerequisite. In other words, 
the doctrinal rejection of any strategy that engenders tensions within 
the working class ignored both the institutional forces that produce 
those divisions in the first place and the conflictual processes by which 
they may, perhaps, be overcome. 

Another criticism leveled at the movements we analyzed is that they 
produced a broad-based “backlash” in the American electorate. 
Harrington says that disruptive protest in the 1960s produced “the 
mean spirit exploited by people like Richard Nixon,” and Bernstein 
warns that disruptive protest is “dangerous.” There is a large measure 
of unreality about this criticism. It is as if group or class struggles can, 
when carefully managed, proceed without engendering conflict. 
Obviously the labor struggles of the mid-thirties helped produce the 



xiii 


Introduction 


corporate-led backlash that began in 1938 and culminated in the 
“witch-hunts” of the late forties and early fifties; and just as obviously 
the black struggles of the fifties and sixties helped produce the backlash 
of the seventies (to which the student and antiwar movements also 
contributed). But how could it have been otherwise? Important inter¬ 
ests were at stake, and had those interests not been a profound source 
of contention, there would have been no need for labor insurgency in 
the one period nor black insurgency in the other. Put another way, the 
relevant question to ask is whether, on balance, the movement made 
gains or lost ground; whether it advanced the interests of working 
people or set back those interests. 

A number of our critics, however, dismiss the gains of these move¬ 
ments because they were insufficient. The more realistic question 
whether the gains made were intrinsically important, and thus worth 
winning, is not addressed. Nor do the critics say why more was possible, 
how larger gains might have been made. Thus Starr refers to “the 
dozens of ‘mass mobilizations’ and ghetto riots of the 1960s that left so 
light a trace on the body politic”; Harrington suggests that full em¬ 
ployment should have been the priority for the welfare rights move¬ 
ment; Brightman faults the insurgency of the period for failing to 
move us toward “a new social order”; and Hobsbawm says of what was 
won in the sixties that “it is not negligible, but it is not what we 
wanted.” 

Our view is different. What was won must be judged by what was 
possible. From this perspective, the victories were considerable. For 
blacks in the South, political rights were achieved, and that meant, at 
the deepest level, a substantial reduction in the use of terror in the 
social control of blacks (see Chapter 4). At the bottom of the black 
community, the poor acted against the relief system, and by doing so 
they ensured their survival in a society which plainly would continue 
to deny them alternative means of supporting themselves (see Chapter 
5) . 3 Nor did the participants in the relief movement of the 1960s 
prefer welfare; together with Harrington, they plainly preferred 
decent jobs at decent wages. But they understood the political facts of 
their lives rather more clearly than Harrington: the unemployed poor 


3R. C. Cobb’s comment on the peasantry in Napoleonic France seems appropriate here: 
“[Analysts], few of whom have ever experienced hunger, have no businesss blaming poor 
people for accepting, even gratefully, the products of bourgeois charity. And it would be 
indecent to upbraid the affame of the past for allowing themselves to be bought out of 
what historians have decreed were‘forward looking’movements by the grant of relief.” 
The Police and the People (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 320. 




Introduction 


xiv 


in this period lacked the power to force programs of full employment. 
What difference would it have made, then, had they proclaimed full 
employment their central goal? One is reminded here of the struggles 
of the unemployed in the Great Depression; the Workers’ Alliance of 
America called both for full employment and for the abolition of the 
profit system. But these large goals aside, the fact is that the Workers’ 
Alliance of America could not even manage to keep relief benefits 
flowing to the unemployed (see Chapter 2). In other words, to criticize 
a movement for not advocating or reaching this goal or that one with¬ 
out even the most casual appraisal of its political resources is an 
exercise in self-righteousness. 

Perhaps, as Barrington Moore suggests in a recent book, there are 
“suppressed historical alternatives”—political options that were in¬ 
stitutionally available but that were not exercised by a movement’s 
leadership. 4 But it is the merit of Moore’s approach that he does not 
treat this matter in doctrinal terms, abstracting movements and the 
options of their leadership from a given historical context with all of 
its contradictory limitations and constraints. He analyzes the case of 
the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the years following 
World War I. To avert a Communist takeover, the SPD claimed that 
it was compelled to coalesce with the military and industrial elites, a 
decision that subsequently helped bring the Nazis to power. Moore 
asks whether an alternative to the totalitarianism of left or right was 
possible, such as some form of democratic socialism, and concludes that 
it was. He argues, for example, that the vulnerability of the SPD 
stemmed in part from its failure to take control of the policing func¬ 
tion, an action that was clearly within its grasp, with the result that it 
became dependent on the German military for the maintenance of 
order. In other words, he tries to show what the suppressed alternatives 
were, and to show that these were grounded in empirically demon¬ 
strable institutional conditions. It is just such careful analysis of actual 
political possibilities and limitations that the critics of the gains won 
in the 1930s and 1960s fail to make. To be sure, what was won was not 
enough—neither the gains of the one period nor those of the other. It 
is not what we wanted. But it is far from being negligible. And over 
all, it is what seemed possible. 

All of this is to say that tenets about the strategies that movements 
“should” have followed or “ought” to have avoided, statements re- 


4 Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1978). 




XV 


Introduction 


garding the goals that movements “should” have embraced or “ought” 
to have eschewed, and statements regarding the reactions from domi¬ 
nant groups or others that “ought” to have been averted—none of these 
criticisms takes on meaning unless it can also be shown that it could 
have been done differently. And to show how it might have been done 
goes beyond the invocation of doctrine; it requires examination of the 
institutional conditions which both create and limit the opportunities 
for mass struggle. It is to such an examination that we hoped to con¬ 
tribute with this book. 

If features of social context influence the course of movements, so 
too do the organizational forms that are developed within movements. 
Here, however, organizers and leaders exercise some measure of dis¬ 
cretion; they play a role in setting the directions of internal organiza¬ 
tional development. And k is our criticism of the way such discretion 
has typically been employed that has caused the severest upset among 
reviewers. The upset was, perhaps, not surprising, for our critique of 
organizational efforts offended central tenets of left doctrine. 

In the main the left has held that formal mass-membership organi¬ 
zations are the correct vehicles by which the working class can drive 
toward power, at least in nonrevolutionary situations. This view is so 
deeply imprinted on the tradition of the left that debates about 
political strategy have been virtually confined to the question how to 
build such bureaucratically structured membership organizations. 
The strategic usefulness of this organizational form, its effectiveness 
as a vehicle for influence, has been treated as axiomatic. 

In three of the four movements we analyze, organizers and leaders 
created mass-membership organizations (by contrast, leaders in the 
southern civil rights movement emphasized coordinated mass mobili¬ 
zations) ; experience with these membership organizations provides 
a historical basis for examining their usefulness. We draw several 
conclusions from this historical experience. First, it was not formal 
organizations but mass defiance that won what was won in the 1930s 
and 1960s: industrial workers, for example, forced concessions from 
industry and government as a result of the disruptive effects of large- 
scale strikes; defiant blacks forced concessions as a result of the dis¬ 
ruptive effects of mass civil disobedience. Second, because they were 
acutely vulnerable to internal oligarchy and stasis and to external 
integration with elites, the bureaucratic organizations that were 
developed within these movements tended to blunt the militancy that 
was the fundamental source of such influence as the movements 



Introduction 


xvi 


exerted. And finally, for the most part, the formal organizations 
collapsed as the movements subsided. This is an important point, since 
critics of movements complain of their short life, as if formal organiza¬ 
tions provided a more enduring alternative form for working-class 
mobilization. To be sure, the unions that emerged in the 1930s did 
become permanent; and as we say in Chapter 3, they have been useful 
in protecting the interests of workers. Still, the unions are obviously 
no exception to the oligarchical and integrative tendencies exhibited 
by formal membership organizations. In any case, it was the unique 
advantages afforded by their location in the mass-production industries 
that made the sustained organization of workers possible, and these 
situational advantages are not available to most other working-class 
and lower-class groups. 

Now all of this may be unsettling, but it is not startling. Our con¬ 
clusions are very similar to those reached by Robert Michels decades 
ago on the basis of his analysis of the organizational imperatives that 
accounted for the conservative tendencies of the German Social 
Democracy. The intellectual left has dealt with Michels largely by 
ignoring him. But the dilemmas to which he pointed persist. Our 
critics are dealing with our analysis in a similar way, dismissing it by 
fiat. ‘‘A good book with a bad point,” Starr says, and he goes on to 
characterize us as guilty of the “adoration of spontaneity.” Our 
critique of the mass-membership bureaucracy is thus treated as if we 
eschewed any form of coherent and coordinated mass action. Another 
reviewer says “we must try harder,” as if organizational imperatives 
can simply be willed away. Bernstein argues that the dilemmas to 
which we point “lie not in the fact of organization but in the nature of 
its leadership” (his emphasis); but it is our point that the imperatives 
of mass-membership organizational maintenance characteristically 
create the kind of leadership Bernstein deplores. Hobsbawm acknowl¬ 
edges the main points of our analysis, suggesting that they constitute 
“a powerful contribution to the cause of realism,” only to conclude 
that “the argument is unsatisfactory” because the poor “need, more 
than ever, not only a strategy of effective pressure but policies—and 
bodies capable of carrying out policies.” 

The poor need a great deal, but they are not likely to be helped to 
get it when we ignore the weaknesses in received doctrines revealed 
by historical experience. If we acknowledge those weaknesses, we may 
do better. We may then begin to consider alternative forms of or¬ 
ganizations through which working-class people can act together in 
defiance of their rulers in ways that are more congruent with the 



xvii 


Introduction 


structure of working-class life and with the process of working-class 
struggle, and less susceptible to penetration by dominant elites. The 
mass-membership bureaucracy was, after all, not invented by the left, 
but is rather a form through which the left emulated the modes of 
organization that exist in the capitalist society the left seeks to trans¬ 
form. That it should be defended so uncritically seems odd. 


July 1978 


F.F.P. 

R.A.C. 




Introduction 


This book is about several protest movements that erupted among 
lower-class groups in the United States during the middle years of 
the twentieth century. We first examine the protests that arose during 
the years of the Great Depression, both among the unemployed and 
among industrial workers. Then we turn to the black protests that 
arose after World War II, starting in the South and spreading to the 
northern cities. 

It is not our purpose, however, to present a comprehensive his¬ 
torical account of these events. We have tried to rely whenever we 
could on the historical research done by others. 1 Our purpose is 
rather to probe for the political meaning of the extraordinary strug¬ 
gles which occurred during these two tumultuous periods in recent 
American history. We have tried to understand the features of the 
American political economy which explain why these eruptions 
occurred when they did, why the eruptions took the forms they did, 
and why elites responded to them as they did. And we have tried to 
understand these events because we think they reveal much about 
both the limitations and the possibilities for power by the poor in 
the electoral-representative political institutions of the United States. 

There is, of course, a considerable literature on protest move¬ 
ments. It is our opinion, however, that the most important question 
to be asked about protest movements is not dealt with in this litera¬ 
ture. As forms of political struggle, protest movements sometimes 
succeed and sometimes fail. Sometimes they force concessions from 
the state that help to relieve the condition of life of the lower classes, 


iThe chapters on the movement of industrial workers and the civil rights movement 
are based on secondary sources because a great deal of historical work has been done on 
these movements. Less has been done on the movement of the unemployed in the Great 
Depression, and in that chapter we rely on both secondary and primary sources. The 
chapter on the welfare rights movement is based on our direct knowledge of and 
involvement in this movement, supplemented by the relatively few studies that have 
been done. 


xix 



Introduction 


xx 


and sometimes they are ignored or repressed. Once protest is acknowl¬ 
edged as a form of political struggle the chief question to be exam¬ 
ined must inevitably be the relationship between what the protestors 
do, the context in which they do it, and the varying responses of the 
state. It is this kind of analysis of past protest movements that hardly 
exists. As a consequence lower-class groups, and those who align 
themselves with lower-class groups, have been denied the political 
wisdom that historical analysis of their own struggles might provide. 

One result of this denial of history is the persistence of certain 
doctrines among the activists and agitators who, from time to time 
in the twentieth-century United States, have tried to mobilize the 
lower classes for political action. Some of these activists, like the 
cadres of the civil rights movement, were simply brave reformers, 
committed not to the total transformation of American society but 
to reforms consistent with American doctrines. Others, like many of 
the organizers in the depression movements, were socialists of one 
kind or another who saw particular protests as only a first step in 
a longer-term revolutionary struggle. 

But whatever their overarching ideology, activists have usually 
concentrated their efforts on developing formally structured organi¬ 
zations with a mass membership drawn from the lower classes. What 
underlies such efforts is the conviction that formal organization is a 
vehicle of power. This conviction is based on several assumptions. 
First, formal organization presumably makes possible the coordina¬ 
tion of the economic and political resources of large numbers of 
people who separately have few such resources. Second, formal 
organization presumably permits the intelligent and strategic use of 
these resources in political conflict. And third, formal organization 
presumably ensures the continuity of lower-class political mobiliza¬ 
tion over time. This, in brief, is the model of mass-based, permanent 
organization which has dominated efforts to build political power 
among the lower classes. 

Since the essence of this model of political action is that formal 
organization will ensure regular, disciplined, and continuing con¬ 
tributions and participation from its members, the model depends 
for its success on the ability of organizations to secure incentives 
or sanctions that will command and sustain the required contribu¬ 
tions and participation from masses of people. The presumption of 
most reformers and revolutionaries who have tried to organize the 
lower classes is that once the economic and political resources of at 
least modest numbers of people are combined in disciplined action, 



XXI 


Introduction 


public or private elites will be forced to yield up the concessions 
necessary to sustain and enlarge mass affiliation. 

The model has not succeeded in practice, as the studies in this 
book reveal. The model has not succeeded because it contains a 
grave flaw. The flaw is, quite simply, that it is not possible to compel 
concessions from elites that can be used as resources to sustain 
oppositional organizations over time. 

In part, activists do not recognize the flaw inherent in the mass- 
based permanent organization model because they are attracted to 
the possibility of organizing the lower classes at extraordinary times, 
at moments when large numbers of lower-class people are roused to 
indignation and defiance and thus when a great deal seems possible. 
Organizers do not create such moments, as we will be at some pains 
to explain later, but they are excited by them, and the signs of the 
moment conspire to support the organizer’s faith. One such sign is 
the sheer excess of political energy among the masses, which itself 
breathes life into the belief that large organizations can be developed 
and sustained. Another is that, in the face of the threat of popular 
insurgency, elites may offer up concessions that would otherwise 
have seemed improbable; the victories needed to sustain organiza¬ 
tion thus seem ready to be won. Most important of all in affirming 
the viability of the model, elites are likely at times of mass dis¬ 
turbance to seek out whatever organizations have emerged among 
the insurgents, soliciting their views and encouraging them to air 
grievances before formal bodies of the state. While these symbolic 
gestures give the appearance of influence to formal organizations 
composed of lower-class people, elites are not actually responding 
to the organizations; they are responding to the underlying force 
of insurgency. But insurgency is always short-lived. Once it subsides 
and the people leave the streets, most of the organizations which it 
temporarily threw up and which elites helped to nurture simply 
fade away. As for the few organizations which survive, it is because 
they become more useful to those who control the resources on 
which they depend than to the lower-class groups which the organi¬ 
zations claim to represent. Organizations endure, in short, by aban¬ 
doning their oppositional politics. 

Our main point, however, is not simply that efforts to build 
organizations are futile. The more important point is that by en¬ 
deavoring to do what they cannot do, organizers fail to do what they 
can do. During those brief periods in which people are roused to 
indignation, when they are prepared to defy the authorities to whom 



Introduction 


xxii 


they ordinarily defer, during those brief moments when lower-class 
groups exert some force against the state, those who call themselves 
leaders do not usually escalate the momentum of the people’s pro¬ 
tests. They do not because they are preoccupied with trying to build 
and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction 
that these organizations will enlarge and become powerful. Thus the 
studies that follow show that, all too often, when workers erupted 
in strikes, organizers collected dues cards; when tenants refused to 
pay rent and stood off marshals, organizers formed building com¬ 
mittees; when people were burning and looting, organizers used that 
“moment of madness” to draft constitutions. 

The study of past movements reveals another point of equal 
importance. Organizers not only failed to seize the opportunity pre¬ 
sented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted 
or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were some¬ 
times able to mobilize. In small part, this resulted from the doc¬ 
trinal commitment to the development of mass-based, permanent 
organization, for organization-building activities tended to draw 
people away from the streets and into the meeting rooms. In part it 
resulted from the preoccupation with internal leadership prerogatives 
that organization-building seems to induce. But in the largest part 
organizers tended to work against disruption because, in their search 
for resources to maintain their organizations, they were driven in¬ 
exorably to elites, and to the tangible and symbolic supports that 
elites could provide. Elites conferred these resources because they 
understood that it was organization-building, not disruption, that 
organizers were about. 

Ordinarily, of course, elites do not support efforts to form organi¬ 
zations of lower-class people. But when insurgency wells up, ap¬ 
parently uncontrollable, elites respond. And one of their responses 
is to cultivate those lower-class organizations which begin to emerge 
in such periods, for they have little to fear from organizations, espe¬ 
cially from organizations which come to depend upon them for sup¬ 
port. Thus, however unwittingly, leaders and organizers of the lower 
classes act in the end to facilitate the efforts of elites to channel the 
insurgent masses into normal politics, believing all the while that 
they are taking the long and arduous but certain path to power. 
When the tumult is over, these organizations usually fade, no longer 
useful to those who provided the resources necessary to their sur¬ 
vival. Or the organization persists by becoming increasingly sub¬ 
servient to those on whom it depends. 



Introduction 


xxiii 

Either way, no lesson seems to be learned. Each generation of 
leaders and organizers acts as if there were no political moral to be 
derived from the history of failed organizing efforts, nor from the 
obvious fact that whatever the people won was a response to their 
turbulence and not to their organized numbers. Consequently, when 
new institutional dislocations once again set people free from pre¬ 
vailing systems of social control, with the result that protest erupts 
for another moment in time, leaders and organizers attempt again to 
do what they cannot do, and forfeit the chance to do what they 
might do. 

We wrote this book as a step toward culling the historical wisdom 
that might inform lower-class political mobilizations in the future. 
The first chapter is a theoretical overview of the societal forces which 
structure protest movements of the lower classes in the United States. 
We consider this overview essential, for the forces which structure 
mass insurgency also define the boundaries within which organizers 
and leaders act, however much they might suppose otherwise. It is 
our belief that many past organizing efforts foundered because they 
failed to take account of the profound ways in which the social 
structure restricts the forms of political action in which the lower 
classes can engage, and having failed to recognize these limitations, 
organizers and leaders also failed to exploit the opportunities afforded 
by lower-class mobilizations when they did occur. 

Then we turn to the movements of the Great Depression and of 
the post-World War II period. Our studies of insurgency during the 
years of the Great Depression include the movement of the un¬ 
employed that gave rise to the Workers’ Alliance of America and 
the movement of industrial workers that produced the Congress of 
Industrial Organizations. The postwar studies include the southern 
civil rights movement and the protest organizations it spawned, and 
the movement of welfare recipients that generated the National 
Welfare Rights Organization. The industrial workers’ movement and 
the civil rights movement gained more than the others; it is our 
central concern to show how differences in the strategies of organizers 
and leaders help to explain variations in what was won. 

Before we go on to the body of our argument we ought to explain 
our use of the words “lower class’’ or “poor.” We do not use tht 
terms in the contemporary sociological sense of a stratum beneath 
the working class, but rather as a stratum within the working class 
that is poor by standards prevailing in society at the time. Although 
the specific social origins of the participants in the movements 



Introduction 


XXIV 


examined here varied greatly—some were white men, some «vere 
black women; some were displaced southern agricultural workers, 
some were urban immigrant industrial workers—we consider that 
all of the protest movements we analyze arose among sectors of the 
working class, including the protest of welfare mothers in the 1960s. 
Our usage deviates from sociological custom but it is consistent 
with classical Marxist definitions of the working class. Our usage 
also deviates from the current fashion on the left of referring to 
impoverished and underemployed working-class groups as “lumpen 
proletarians,” a fashion we find not only offensive for its denigrating 
implications but also an abuse of Marx, who meant the term to refer 
to deviant and criminal elements from all classes. 


March 1977 


F.F.P. 

R.A.C. 



CHAPTER 

l 


The Structuring 
of Protest 


Common sense and historical experience combine to suggest a simple 
but compelling view of the roots of power in any society. Crudely 
but clearly stated, those who control the means of physical coercion, 
and those who control the means of producing wealth, have power 
over those who do not. This much is true whether the means of 
coercion consists in the primitive force of a warrior caste or the 
technological force of a modern army. And it is true whether the 
control of production consists in control by priests of the mysteries 
of the calendar on which agriculture depends, or control by financiers 
of the large-scale capital on which industrial production depends. 
Since coercive force can be used to gain control of the means of pro¬ 
ducing wealth, and since control of wealth can be used to gain 
coercive force, these two sources of power tend over time to be 
drawn together within one ruling class. 

Common sense and historical experience also combine to suggest 
that these sources of power are protected and enlarged by the use 
of that power not only to control the actions of men and women, 
but also to control their beliefs. What some call superstructure, and 
what others call culture, includes an elaborate system of beliefs and 
ritual behaviors which defines for people what is right and what is 
wrong and why; what is possible and what is impossible; and the 
behavioral imperatives that follow from these beliefs. Because this 
superstructure of beliefs and rituals is evolved in the context of 
unequal power, it is inevitable that beliefs and rituals reinforce 
inequality, by rendering the powerful divine and the challengers 
evil. Thus the class struggles that might otherwise be inevitable in 


1 



2 


Poor People s Movements 

sharply unequal societies ordinarily do not seem either possible or 
right from the perspective of those who live within the structure of 
belief and ritual fashioned by those societies. People whose only 
possible recourse in struggle is to defy the beliefs and rituals laid 
down by their rulers ordinarily do not. 

What common sense and historical experience suggest has been 
true of many societies is no less true of modern capitalist societies, 
the United States among them. Power is rooted in the control of 
coercive force and in the control of the means of production. How¬ 
ever, in capitalist societies this reality is not legitimated by rendering 
the powerful divine, but by obscuring their existence. Thus electoral- 
representative arrangements proclaim the franchise, not force and 
wealth, as the basis for the accumulation and use of power. Wealth 
is, to be sure, unequally distributed, but the franchise is widely and 
nearly equally distributed, and by exercising the franchise men and 
women presumably determine who their rulers will be, and there¬ 
fore what their rulers presumably must do if they are to remain 
rulers. 

Since analysts of power also live within the boundaries of ritual 
and belief of their society, they have contributed to this obfuscation 
by arguing that electoral arrangements offset other bases of power. 
Even the most sophisticated American political scientists have begun 
with the assumption that there are in fact two systems of power, one 
based on wealth and one based on votes, and they have devoted 
themselves to deciphering the relative influence of these two systems. 
This question has been regarded as intricate and complicated, de¬ 
manding assiduous investigations in a variety of political settings, 
and by methods subject to the most rigorous empirical strictures. 
(“Nothing categorical can be assumed about power in any commun¬ 
ity” was Polsby’s famous dictum.) The answer that emerged from 
these investigations was that electoral-representative procedures ac¬ 
complished a substantial dispersal of power in a less-than-perfect 
world. It followed that those who struggled against their rulers by 
defying the procedures of the liberal democratic state were dangerous 
troublemakers, or simply fools. 

In the 1960s the dominant pluralist tradition was discredited, at 
least among those on the ideological left who were prodded by out¬ 
breaks of defiance among minorities and students to. question this 
perspective. In the critique that emerged it was argued that there 
were not two systems of power, but that the power rooted in wealth 
and force overwhelmed the power of the franchise. The pluralists 



3 The Structuring of Protest 

had erred, the critics said, by failing to recognize the manifold ways 
in which wealth and its concomitants engulfed electoral-representa¬ 
tive procedures, effectively barring many people from participation 
while deluding and entrapping others into predetermined electoral 
“choices.” The pluralists had also erred by ignoring the consistent 
bias toward the interests of elites inherent in presumably neutral 
governing structures, no matter what the mandate of the electorate 

We do not wish to summarize the critique, which was by no 
means simple, or all of a piece. We wish only to make the point that 
the challenge rested in large part on the insight that modes of par¬ 
ticipation and nonparticipation in electoral-representative procedures 
were not, as the plural ists had implied by their narrow empirical 
strictures, the freely made political choices of free men and women. 
Rather, modes of participation, and the degree of influence that re¬ 
sulted, were consistently determined by location in the class struc¬ 
ture. It was an important insight, and once it had been achieved the 
conclusion followed not far behind that so long as lower-class groups 
abided by the norms governing the electoral-representative system, 
they would have little influence. It therefore became clear, at least 
to some of us, that protest tactics which defied political norms were 
not simply the recourse of troublemakers and fools. For the poor, 
they were the only recourse. 

But having come this far, we have gone no further. The insights 
that illuminated the critiques of electoral-representative processes 
have been entirely overlooked in the few studies that have been done 
of the nature of protest itself. From an intellectual perspective, it is 
a startling oversight; from a political perspective, it is all too easily 
explained by the overwhelming biases of our traditions. Briefly 
stated, the main argument of this chapter is that protest is also not 
a matter of free choice; it is not freely available to all groups at all 
times, and much of the time it is not available to lower-class groups 
at all. The occasions when protest is possible among the poor, the 
forms that it must take, and the impact it can have are all delimited 
by the social structure in ways which usually diminish its extent and 
diminish its force. Before we go on to. explain these points, we need 
to define what we mean by a protest movement, for customary 
definitions have led both analysts and activists to ignore or discredit 
much protest that does occur. 

The emergence of a protest movement entails a transformation 
both of consciousness and of behavior. The change in consciousness 
has at least three distinct aspects. First, “the system”—or those 



4 


Poor People’s Movements 

aspects of the system that people experience and perceive—loses 
legitimacy. Large numbers of men and women who ordinarily accept 
the authority of their rulers and the legitimacy of institutional 
arrangements come to believe in some measure that these rulers and 
these arrangements are unjust and wrong. 1 Second, people who are 
ordinarily fatalistic, who believe that existing arrangements are 
inevitable, begin to assert “rights” that imply demands for change. 
Third, there is a new sense of efficacy; people who ordinarily consider 
themselves helpless come to believe that they have some capacity to 
alter their lot. 

The change in behavior is equally striking, and usually more easily 
recognized, at least when it takes the form of mass strikes or marches 
or riots. Such behavior seems to us to involve two distinguishing 
elements. First, masses of people become defiant; they violate the 
traditions and laws to which they ordinarily acquiesce, and they 
flaunt the authorities to whom they ordinarily defer. And second, 
their defiance is acted out collectively, as members of a group, and 
not as isolated individuals. Strikes and riots are clearly forms of 
collective action, but even some forms of defiance which appear to 
be individual acts, such as crime or school truancy or incendiarism, 
while more ambiguous, may have a collective dimension, for those 
who engage in these acts may consider themselves to be part of a 
larger movement. Such apparently atomized acts of defiance can be 
considered movement events when those involved perceive them¬ 
selves to be acting as members of a group, and when they share a 
common set of protest beliefs. 

Prevailing definitions, by stressing articulated social change goals 
as the defining feature of social movements, have had the effect of 
denying political meaning to many forms of protest. Thus while the 
impulse to proliferate idiosyncratic usages ought ordinarily to be 
resisted, we believe that the difference between our definition and 
those generally found in the fairly extensive sociological literature 
on social movements is no mere definitional quibble. Joseph Gusfield, 


i In this connection Max Weber writes: “The degree in which ‘communal action' and 
possibly ‘societal action,’ emerges from the ‘mass actions’ of the members of a class is 
linked to general cultural conditions, especially to those of an intellectual sort. It is also 
linked to the extent of the contrasts that have already evolved, and is especially linked 
to the transparency of the connections between the causes and the consequences of the 
‘class situation.' For however different life chances may be, this fact in itself, according 
to all experience, by no means gives birth to ‘class action . . .' ” (184, emphasis in the 
original). 



5 The Structuring of Protest 

for example, defines a social movement as “socially shared activities 
and beliefs directed toward the demand for change in some aspect 
of the social order. . . . What characterizes a social movement as a 
particular kind of change agent is its quality as an articulated and 
organized group” (2, 453). Similarly John Wilson says: “A social 
movement is a conscious, collective, organized attempt to bring about 
or resist large-scale change in the social order by noninstitutionalized 
means” (8). 

The stress on conscious intentions in these usages reflects a con¬ 
fusion in the literature between the mass movement on the one 
hand, and the formalized organizations which tend to emerge on the 
crest of the movement on the other hand—two intertwined but dis¬ 
tinct phenomena. 2 Thus formalized organizations do put forward 
articulated and agreed-upon social change goals, as suggested by 
these definitions, but such goals may not be apparent in mass up¬ 
risings (although others, including ourselves as observers and ana¬ 
lysts, may well impute goals to uprisings). Furthermore our emphasis 
is on collective defiance as the key and distinguishing feature of a 
protest movement, but defiance tends to be omitted or understated in 
standard definitions simply because defiance doe* not usually char¬ 
acterize the activities of formal organizations that arise on the crest 
of protest movements. 

Whatever the intellectual sources of error, the effect of equating 
movements with movement organizations—and thus requiring that 
protests have a leader, a constitution, a legislative program, or at 
least a banner before they are recognized as such—is to divert atten¬ 
tion from many forms of political unrest and to consign them by 
definition to the more shadowy realms of social problems and deviant 
behavior. As a result such events as massive school truancy or rising 
worker absenteeism or mounting applications for public welfare or 
spreading rent defaults rarely attract the attention of political 
analysts. Having decided by definitional fiat that nothing political 
has occurred, nothing has to be explained, at least not in the terms 
of political protest. And having contrived in this way not to recog¬ 
nize protest or to study it, we cannot ask certain rather obvious and 
important questions about it. 


2 Thus, Zald and Ash use the term "social movement organizations” to encompass both 
forms of social action. Roberta Ash does, in her later work, distinguish between move¬ 
ments and movement organizations, but she continues to stress articulated goals as a 
defining feature of a movement. 



Poor People’s Movements 


6 


Institutional Limits on the Incidence 
of Mass Insurgency 

Aristotle believed that the chief cause of internal warfare was in¬ 
equality, that the lesser rebel in order to be equal. But human ex¬ 
perience has proved him wrong, most of the time. Sharp inequality 
has been constant, but rebellion infrequent. Aristotle underestimated 
the controlling force of the social structure on political life. How¬ 
ever hard their lot may be, people usually remain acquiescent, con¬ 
forming to the accustomed patterns of daily life in their community, 
and believing those patterns to be both inevitable and just. Men and 
women till the fields each day, or stoke the furnaces, or tend the 
looms, obeying the rules and rhythms of earning a livelihood; they 
mate and bear children hopefully, and mutely watch them die; they 
abide by the laws of church and community and defer to their rulers, 
striving to earn a little grace and esteem. In other words most 
of the time people conform to the institutional arrangements which 
enmesh them, which regulate the rewards and penalties of daily life, 
and which appear to be the only possible reality. 

Those for whom the rewards are most meager, who are the most 
oppressed by inequality, are also acquiescent. Sometimes they are 
the most acquiescent, for they have little defense against the penalties 
that can be imposed for defiance. Moreover, at most times and in 
most places, and especially in the United States, the poor are led to 
believe that their destitution is deserved, and that the riches and 
power that others command are also deserved. In more traditional 
societies sharp inequalities are thought to be divinely ordained, or 
to be a part of the natural order of things. In more modern societies, 
such as the United States, riches and power are ascribed to personal 
qualities of industry or talent; it follows that those who have little 
or nothing have only what they deserve. As Edelman observes in his 
study of American political beliefs: 

The American poor have required less coercion and less in social 
security guarantees to maintain their quiescence than has been true 
in other developed countries, even authoritarian ones like Germany 
and notably poor ones like Italy; for the guilt and self-concepts 
of the poor have kept them docile (1971, 56). 

Ordinarily, in short, the lower classes accept their lot, and that 
acceptance can be taken for granted; it need not be bargained for 



7 The Structuring of Protest 

by their rulers. This capacity of the institutions of a society to 
enforce political docility is the most obvious way in which protest 
is socially structured, in the sense that it is structurally precluded 
most of the time. 

Sometimes, however, the poor do become defiant. They challenge 
traditional authorities, and the rules laid down by those authorities. 
They demand redress for their grievances. American history is punc¬ 
tuated by such events, from the first uprisings by freeholders, tenants, 
and slaves in colonial America, to the postrevolutionary debtor 
rebellions, through the periodic eruptions of strikes and riots by 
industrial workers, to the ghetto riots of the twentieth century. In 
each instance, masses of the poor were somehow able, if only briefly, 
to overcome the shame bred by a culture which blames them for their 
plight; somehow they were able to break the bonds of conformity 
enforced by work, by family, by community, by every strand of 
institutional life; somehow they were able to overcome the fears 
induced by police, by militia, by company guards. 

When protest does arise, when masses of those who are ordinarily 
docile become defiant, a major transformation has occurred. Most of 
the literature on popular insurgency has been devoted to identifying 
the preconditions of this transformation (often out of a concern for 
preventing or curbing the resulting political disturbances). Whatever 
the disagreements among different schools of thought, and they are 
substantial, there is general agreement that the emergence of popular 
uprisings reflects profound changes in the larger society. This area 
of agreement is itself important, for it is another way of stating our 
proposition that protest is usually structurally precluded. The agree¬ 
ment is that only under exceptional conditions will the lower classes 
become defiant—and thus, in our terms, only under exceptional con - 
ditions are the lower classes afforded the socially determined oppor¬ 
tunity to press for their own class interests. 

The validity of this point follows from any of the major theories 
of civil disorder considered alone. When the several theoretical per¬ 
spectives are considered concurrently and examined in the light of 
the historical events analyzed in this book, the conclusion is sug¬ 
gested that while different theories emphasize different kinds of 
social dislocations, most of these dislocations occurred simultaneously 
in the 1930s and 1960s. One does not have to believe that the various 
major theoretical perspectives are equally valid to agree that they 
may all cast at least some light on the series of dislocations that pre¬ 
ceded the eruption of protest, at least in the periods we study. This 



8 


Poor People’s Movements 

argues that it not only requires a major social dislocation before 
protest can emerge, but that a sequence or combination of disloca¬ 
tions probably must occur before the anger that underlies protest 
builds to a high pitch, and before that anger can find expression in 
collective defiance. 

It seems useful to divide perspectives on insurgency according to 
whether the emphasis is on pressures that force eruptions, or whether 
the emphasis is on the breakdown of the regulatory capacity of the 
society, a breakdown that permits eruptions to occur and to take 
form in political protest. Thus among the “pressure” theorists one 
might include those who emphasize economic change as a precon¬ 
dition for civil disorder, whether economic improvement or im- 
miseration. Sharp economic change obviously disturbs the relation¬ 
ship between what men and women have been led to expect, and the 
conditions they actually experience. If people have been led to expect 
more than they receive, they are likely to feel frustration and anger. 3 
Some analysts, following de Tocqueville, emphasize the frustration 
produced by periods of economic improvement which may generate 
expectations that outpace the rate of actual economic gain. 4 Others, 
following more closely in the tradition of Marx and Engels, 5 empha¬ 
size that it is new and unexpected hardships that generate frustration 
and anger, and the potential for civil strife. However, this disagree¬ 
ment, as others have noted, is not theoretically irreconcilable. 


3 Perhaps the best known exponent of this widely held “relative deprivation” theory of 
civil strife is Ted Robert Gurr (1968, 1970). See also Feierabend, Feierabend, and 
Nesvold. For an excellent critique of the political theorists who base their work on 
this theory, see Lupsha. 

** Both de Tocqueville and his followers include conditions of political liberalization, 
and the rising political expectations that result, as possible precursors of civil strife. 
Probably the most well-known of the contemporary “rising expectations” theorists is 
James C. Davies, who, however, argues a variant of the theory known as the “J-Curve.” 
According to Davies, it is only when long periods of improvement are followed by 
economic downturns or political repression that civil strife results (1962). 

5 The views of Marx and Engels are, however, both more historically specific and com¬ 
prehensive than the relative deprivation theory, and might be better described as not 
inconsistent with that theory. Economic crises, and the attendant hardships, activate 
proletarian struggles not only because of the extreme immiseration of the proletariat at 
such times, and not only because of the expansion of the reserve army of the unem¬ 
ployed at such times, but because periods of economic crisis reveal the contradictions of 
capitalism, and particularly the contradiction between socialized productive forces and 
the anarchy of private ownership and exchange. In Engels’ words, “The mode of pro¬ 
duction rises in rebellion against the form of exchange. The bourgeoisie are convicted 
of incapacity further to manage their own social productive forces” (1967). Deprivation, 
in other words, is only a symptom of a far more profound conflict which cannot be 
resolved within the existing social formation. 



9 The Structuring of Protest 

Whether one stresses that it is good times or bad times that account 
for turmoil among the lower orders may be more a reflection of the 
empirical cases the author deals with, and perhaps of the author’s 
class sympathies, than of serious conceptual differences. 6 Both the 
theorists of rising expectations and those of immiseration agree that 
when the expectations of men and women are disappointed, they 
may react with anger. And while sudden hardship, rather than rising 
expectations, is probably the historically more important precondi¬ 
tion for mass turmoil, both types of change preceded the eruptions 
noted in the pages that follow. 7 

Still other pressure theorists focus not on the stresses generated by 
inconsistencies between economic circumstance and expectation, but 
follow Parsons (1951) in broadening this sort of model to include 
stresses created by structural changes generally, by inconsistencies 
between different “components of action” leading to outbreaks of 
what Parsons labels “irrational behavior” (1965). The breadth and 
vagueness of this model, however, probably make it less than useful. 
As Charles Tilly comments, “there is enough ambiguity in concepts 
like ‘structural change,’ ‘stress’ and ‘disorder’ to keep a whole flotilla 
of philologists at sea for life” (1964, 100). 

The major flaw, in our view, in the work of all pressure theorists 
is their reliance on an unstated and incorrect assumption that eco¬ 
nomic change or structural change is extraordinary, that stability 
and the willing consensus it fosters are the usual state of affairs. 
Economic change, and presumably also structural change, if one were 
clear as to what that meant, are more the usual than the occasional 
features of capitalist societies. Nevertheless, historical evidence sug¬ 
gests that extremely rapid economic change adds to the frustration 
and anger that many people may experience much of the time. 

The other major set of theoretical perspectives on popular up¬ 
rising emphasizes the breakdown of the regulatory capacity of social 
institutions as the principle factor leading to civil strife. These 
explanations also range broadly from social disorganization theorists 


sGeshwender points out that rising expectations and relative deprivation hypotheses 
(as well as status inconsistency hypotheses) are theoretically reconcilable. 

7 Barrington Moore asserts bluntly that the main urban revolutionary movements in the 
nineteenth and twentieth centuries “were all revolutions of desperation, certainly not of 
rising expectations, as some liberal theorists of revolution might lead one to anticipate.’* 
Snyder and Tilly, however, seem to disagree, and report that at least short-term fluctua¬ 
tions in prices and industrial production did not predict the incidence of collective 
violence in nineteenth- and twentieth-centurv France (1972). 




10 


Poor People's Movements 

such as Hobsbawm, who emphasizes the breakdown of the regulatory 
controls implicit in the structures and routines of daily life; to those 
such as Kornhauser, who argues that major societal changes—depres¬ 
sion, industrialization, urbanization—break the ties that bind people 
to the multiple secondary associations that ordinarily control political 
behavior (1959); to those who focus on divisions among elites as 
the trigger that releases popular discontents Taken together, these 
social disorganization perspectives provide a major insight, however 
general, into the links between societal change, the breakdown of 
social controls—what Ash calls the “deroutinization” of life (164- 
167)—and the eruption of protest. 8 The disorganization theories 
suggest that periods of rapid change tend, at the same time as they 
build frustration, to weaken the regulatory controls inherent in the 
structures of institutional life. 

More specifically, economic change may be so jarring as to virtually 
destroy the structures and routines of daily life. Hobsbawm points to 
he impact of just such conditions in accounting for the rise of 
“social banditry” among the Italian peasantry in the nineteenth 
century: 

[Social banditry] is most likely to become a major phenomenon 
when their traditional equilibrium is upset: during and after 
periods of abnormal hardship, such as famines and wars, or at 
the moments when the jaws of the dynamic modern world seize 
the static communities in order to destroy and transform them 
(1963 24). 

Barrington Moore stresses a similar theme: 

The main factors that create a revolutionary mass are a sudden 
increase in hardship coming on top of quite serious deprivations, 


8 Just as the relative deprivation theories art not inconsistent with a Marxist interpreta¬ 
tion of the origins of working- and lower-class protest, neither is the emphasis on 
social disorganization necessarily inconsistent (although most of the proponents of that 
perspective are clearly not Marxists). Thus a Marxist interpretation of protest would 
acknowledge the significance of both relative deprivation and social disorganization, 
treating these however not as historically generalizable causes of uprisings, but as 
symptoms of historically specific contradictions in capitalist society. Bertell Oilman’s 
work on character structure as inhibiting class consciousness and class action contributes 
to making explicit the link between social disorganization and mass uprisings from a 
Marxist perspective. Oilman argues that the “proletariat’s ‘fear of freedom’ and their 
submissiveness before authority . . . are, after all, simply attempts to repeat in the 
future what has been done in the past” (42). But clearly, periods of major social 
dislocation may force a break in these character patterns, if only by precluding the 
possibility of repeating in the future what has been done in the past. 



11 The Structuring of Protest 

together with the breakdown of the routines of daily life—getting 

food, going to work, etc.—that tie people to the prevailing order 

The significance of economic change is, in other words, not simply 
that people find their expectations frustrated and so feel anger. It 
is also that when the structures of daily life weaken, the regulatory 
capacities of these structures, too, are weakened. “A revolution takes 
place’' says Lefebvre “when and only when, in such a society, people 
can no longer lead their everyday lives; so long as they can live their 
ordinary lives relations are constantly re-established’’ (32). 

Ordinary life for most people is regulated by the rules of work 
and the rewards of work which pattern each day and week and 
season. Once cast out of that routine, people are cast out of the 
regulatory framework that it imposes. Work and the rewards of work 
underpin the stability of other social institutions as well. When men 
cannot earn enough to support families, they may desert their wives 
and children, or fail to marry the women with whom they mate. 
And if unemployment is longlasting entire communities may dis¬ 
integrate as the able-bodied migrate elsewhere in search of work. In 
effec* daily life becomes progressively deregulated as what Edelman 
calls the “comforting banalities” of everyday existence are destroyed 
(95). The first signs of the resulting demoralization and uncertainty 
are usually rising indices of crime, family breakdown, vagrancy, and 
vandalism. 9 Barred from conforming to the social roles they have 
been reared to live through, men and women continue to stumble 
and struggle somehow to live, within or without the rules. 

Thus it is not only that catastrophic depression in the 1930s and 
modernization and migration in the 1960s led to unexpected hard¬ 
ships; massive unemployment and the forced uprooting of people 
and communities had other, perhaps equally traumatic effects on 
the lives of people. The loss of work and the disintegration of com¬ 
munities meant the loss of the regulating activities, resources, and 
relationships on which the structure of everyday life depends, and 
thus the erosion of the structures that bound people to existing social 


9 It ought to be noted that Charles Tilly, in his influential work on collective violence 
in nineteenth-century France, does not confirm the generally accepted view that there 
is a relationship between crime and collective violence, or between either of these vari¬ 
ables and the presumably disorganizing impact of urban growth. However, the evidence 
suggests that these relationships did hold in the periods which we investigate in the 
twentieth-century United States, and we do not consider the issue yet settled. In other 
respects, as we will note, we agree with Tilly’s alternative emphasis on resource shifts 
as a precondition for collective struggle. See Tilly (1964), and Lodhi and Tilly (1973). 



12 


Poor People’s Movements 

arrangements. Still, neither the frustrations generated by the eco¬ 
nomic change, nor the breakdown of daily life, may be sufficient to 
lead people to protest their travails. Ordinarily, when people suffer 
such hardships, they blame God, or they blame themselves. 

For a protest movement to arise out of these traumas of daily life, 
people have to perceive the deprivation and disorganization they 
experience as both wrong, and subject to redress. 10 The social arrange¬ 
ments that are ordinarily perceived as just and immutable must come 
to seem both unjust and mutable. One condition favoring this 
transvaluation is the scale of distress. Thus in the 1930s, and again 
in the postwar years, unemployment reached calamitous proportions. 
Large numbers of people lost their means of earning a livelihood at 
the same time. This was clearly the case in the 1930s when unemploy¬ 
ment affected one-third of the work force. But among blacks the 
experience in the post-World War II period was equally devastating, 
for millions were forced off the land and concentrated in the ghettos 
of the cities. Within these central city ghettos, unemployment rates 
in the 1950s and 1960s reached depression levels. The sheer scale 
of these dislocations helped to mute the sense of self-blame, pre¬ 
disposing men and women to view their plight as a collective one, 
and to blame their rulers for the destitution and disorganization they 
experienced. 

This transvaluation is even more likely to take place, or to take 
place more rapidly, when the dislocations suffered by particular 
groups occur in a context of wider changes and instability, at times 
when the dominant institutional arrangements of the society, as 
people understand them, are self-evidently not functioning. When 
the mammoth industrial empires of the United States virtually 
ground to a halt in the early 1930s and the banks of the country 
simply closed their doors, the “American Way” could not be so fully 
taken for granted by the masses of impoverished workers and the 
unemployed. Similarly, while the institutional disturbances that pre¬ 
ceded the black movements of the 1960s were not dramatically visible 
to the society as a whole, they were to the people who were uprooted 
by them. For blacks, changes in the southern economy meant nothing 


io “The classical mob,” writes Hobsbawm, “did not merely riot as protest, but because it 
expected to achieve something by its riot. It assumed that the authorities would be 
sensitive to its movements, and probably also that they would make some sort of 
immediate concession . . .” (111). Rudd’s account of the food riots among the urban 
poor in the eighteenth century makes the same point (1964). 



13 The Structuring of Protest 

less than the disintegration of the ancien regime of the feudal planta¬ 
tion, just as the subsequent migratory trek to the cities meant their 
wrenching removal into an unknown society. 

Finally, as these objective institutional upheavals lead people to 
reappraise their situation, elites may contribute to that reappraisal, 
thus helping to stimulate mass arousal—a process that has often been 
noted by social theorists. Clearly, the vested interest of the ruling 
class is usually in preserving the status quo, and in preserving the 
docility of the lower orders within the status quo. But rapid institu¬ 
tional change and upheaval may affect elite groups differently, under¬ 
mining the power of some segments of the ruling class and enlarging 
the power of other segments, so that elites divide among them¬ 
selves. This dissonance may erode their authority, and erode the 
authority of the institutional norms they uphold. If, in the ensuing 
competition for dominance, some among the elite seek to enlist the 
support of the impoverished by naming their grievances as just, then 
the hopes of the lower classes for change will be nourished and the 
legitimacy of the institutions which oppress them further weakened. 11 

Indeed, even when elites play no actual role in encouraging pro¬ 
test, the masses may invent a role for them. Hobsbawm describes how 
peasants in the Ukraine pillaged the gentry and Jews during the 
tumultuous year 1905. They did so, however, in the firm conviction 
that a new imperial manifesto had directed them to take what they 
wanted. An account by a landowner makes the point: 

“Why have you come?” I asked them. 

“To demand corn, to make you give us your corn/' said several 
voices simultaneously. . . . 

I could not refrain from recalling how I had treated them for 
so long. 

“But what are we to do?” several voices answered me. 

“We aren’t doing this in our name, but in the name of the Tsar.” 

“It is the Tsar’s order,” said one voice in the crowd. 

“A general has distributed this order of the Tsar throughout the 
districts,” said another (187). 12 


11 Roberta Ash ascribes the politicization of Boston mobs during the revolutionary 
period to this process. As the discontented wealthy sought allies among the poor, street 
gangs were transformed into organized militants in the political struggle (70-73). 

12 Hobsbawm and Rud£ make the same point about the English farm laborers’ protests 
against enclosure: *‘[T]hey were reluctant to believe . . . that the King’s government 
and Parliament were against them. For how could the format of justice be against 
justice?” (65). 



14 


Poor People’s Movements 

Nor is this tendency only observable among Russian peasants. Crowds 
of welfare recipients demonstrating for special grants in New York 
City in May 1968 employed a similar justification, inciting each other 
with the news that a rich woman had died and left instructions that 
her wealth be distributed through the welfare centers. These events 
suggest that people seek to legitimate what they do, even when they 
are defiant, and the authority of elites to define what is legitimate 
remains powerful, even during periods of stress and disorder. 

Our main point, however, is that whatever position one takes on 
the “causes” of mass unrest, there is general agreement that extraor¬ 
dinary disturbances in the larger society are required to transform 
the poor from apathy to hope, from quiescence to indignation. 13 On 
this point, if no other, theorists of the most diverse persuasions agree. 
Moreover, there is reason to think that a series of concurrent dis¬ 
locations underlay the mass protests of the 1930s and 1960s. And 
with that said, the implication for an understanding of the potential 
for political influence among the poor becomes virtually self-evident: 
since periods of profound social dislocations are infrequent, so too 
are opportunities for protest among the lower classes. 


The Patterning of Insurgency 


Just as quiescence is enforced by institutional life, and just as the 
eruption of discontent is determined by changes in institutional life, 
the forms of political protest are also determined by the institutional 
context in which people live and work. This point seems self-evident 
to us, but it is usually ignored, in part because the pluralist tradition 
defines political action as essentially a matter of choice. Political 
actors, whoever they may be, are treated as if they are not con- 


13 Rosa Luxemburg’s discussion of the profound and complex social upheavals that lead 
to mass strikes makes the same point: “[I]t is extremely difficult for any leading organ of 
the proletarian movement to foresee and to calculate which occasions and moments 
can lead to explosions and which cannot . . . because in each individual act of the 
struggle so many important economic, political, and social, general and local, material 
and psychological moments are brought into play that no single act can be arranged and 
resolved like a mathematical problem. . . . The revolution is not a maneuver executed 
by the proletariat in the open field; rather, it is a struggle in the midst of the unceasing 
crashing, crumbling, and displacing of all the social foundations” (245). 



15 The Structuring of Protest 

stricted by a social environment in deciding upon one political 
strategy or another; it is as if the strategies employed by different 
groups were freely elected, rather than the result of constraints im¬ 
posed by their location in the social structure. In this section, we turn, 
in the most preliminary way, to a discussion of the ways in which 
the expression of defiance is patterned by features of institutional life. 


THE ELECTORAL SYSTEM AS A STRUCTURING 
INSTITUTION 

In the United States the principal structuring institution, at least 
in the early phases of protest, is the electoral-representative system. 
The significance of this assertion is not that the electoral system pro¬ 
vides an avenue of influence under normal circumstances. To the 
contrary, we shall demonstrate that it is usually when unrest among 
the lower classes breaks out of the confines of electoral procedures 
that the poor may have some influence, for the instability and 
polarization they then threaten to create by their actions in the 
factories or in the streets may force some response from electoral 
leaders. But whether action emerges in the factories or the streets 
may depend on the course of the early phase of protest at the polls. 

Ordinarily defiance is first expressed in the voting booth simply 
because, whether defiant or not, people have been socialized within 
a political culture that defines voting as the mechanism through 
which political change can and should properly occur. The vitality 
of this political culture, the controlling force of the norms that guide 
political discontent into electoral channels, is not understood merely 
by asserting the pervasiveness of liberal political ideology in the 
United States and the absence of competing ideologies, for that is 
precisely what has to be explained. Some illumination is provided by 
certain features of the electoral system itself, by its rituals and cele¬ 
brations and rewards, for these practices help to ensure the persist¬ 
ence of confidence in electoral procedures. Thus it is significant that 
the franchise was extended to white working-class men at a very 
early period in the history of the United States, and that a vigorous 
system of local government developed. Through these mechanisms, 
large proportions of the population were embraced by the rituals of 
electoral campaigns, and shared in the symbolic rewards of the 



16 


Poor People’s Movements 

electoral system, while some also shared in the tangible rewards of 
a relatively freely dispensed government patronage. Beliefs thus 
nurtured do not erode readily. 

Accordingly, one of the first signs of popular discontent in the 
contemporary United States is usually a sharp shift in traditional 
voting patterns. 14 In a sense, the electoral system serves to measure 
and register the extent of the emerging disaffection. Thus, the urban 
working class reacted to economic catastrophe in the landslide elec¬ 
tion of 1932 by turning against the Republican Party to which it had 
given its allegiance more or less since 1896. 15 Similarly, the political 
impact of the forces of modernization and migration was first evident 
in the crucial presidential elections of 1956 and 1960. Urban blacks, 
who had voted Democratic in successively larger proportions since 


14 The tendency for popular discontent to lead to third-party efforts is of course also 
evidence of the force of electoral norms. Thus as early as the depression of 1828-1831, 
labor unrest was expressed in the rise of numerous workingman's political parties, and 
late in the nineteenth century as the industrial working class grew, much labor dis¬ 
content was channeled into socialist political parties, some of which achieved modest 
success at the local level. In 1901 the Socialist Party came together as a coalition of 
many of these groups, and by 1912 it had elected 1,200 party members to local public 
office in some 340 cities and towns, including the mayor’s office in 73 cities (Weinstein, 
7). Similarly the agrarian movements of the late nineteenth century were primarily 
oriented toward the electoral system. Nor is this tendency only evident in the United 
States. In Europe, for example, with the disillusionment of the failed revolution of 
1848, and with the gradual extension of the franchise to workers, socialist parties also 
began to emphasize parliamentary tactics. The classical justification for this emphasis 
became Engels’ introduction to Class Struggles in France, in which Engels writes of the 
successes achieved by the German party through the parliamentary vote: “It has been 
discovered that the political institutions in which the domination of the bourgeoisie is 
organized offer a fulcrum by means of which the proletariat can combat these very 
political institutions. The Social Democrats have participated in the elections to the 
various Diets, to municipal councils, and to industrial courts. Wherever the proletariat 
could secure an effective voice, the occupation of these electoral strongholds by the 
bourgeoisie has been contested. Consequently, the bourgeoisie and the government have 
become much more alarmed at the legal than at the illegal activities of the labor party, 
dreading the results of elections far more than they dread the results of rebellion." 
Some years later, Kautsky published a letter from Engels disavowing the preface and 
blaming it on the “timid legalism’’ of the leaders of the German Social Democratic 
Party who were committed to the parliamentary activities through which the party was 
thriving, and fearful of the threatened passage of antisocialist laws by the Reichstag 
(see Howard, 383; Michels, 370 fn 6). 

is Burnham’s well-known theory of “critical elections’’ resulting from the cumulative 
tension between socio-economic developments and the political system is similar to this 
argument (1965, 1970). The relationship betwen economic conditions and voter 
responses has been subjected to extensive empirical study by American political scien¬ 
tists. These studies generally tend to confirm the proposition that deteriorating economic 
conditions result in voter defections from incumbent parties. See for example Bloom 
and Price; Kramer; and Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes. 



17 The Structuring of Protest 

the election of 1936, began to defect to Republican columns or to 
stay away from the polls. 

These early signs of political instability ordinarily prompt efforts 
by contending political leaders to placate the defecting groups, usu¬ 
ally at this stage with conciliatory pronouncements. The more serious 
the electoral defections, or the keener the competition among 
political elites, the more likely that such symbolic appeasements will 
be offered. But if the sources of disturbance and anger are severe— 
and only if they are severe and persistent—conciliations are likely 
merely to fuel mass arousal, for in effect they imply that some of the 
highest leaders of the land identify with the indignation of the 
lowly masses. 

Moreover, just as political leaders play an influential role in 
stimulating mass arousal, so do they play an important role in shaping 
the demands of the aroused. 16 What are intended to serve as merely 
symbolic appeasements may instead provide a focus for the still 
inchoate anxieties and diffuse anger that drive the masses. Thus early 
rhetorical pronouncements by liberal political leaders, including 
presidents of the United States, about the "rights” of workers and the 
"rights” of blacks not only helped to fuel the discontents of workers 
and blacks, but helped to concentrate those discontents on demands 
articulated by leading officials of the nation. 17 


16 Edelman ascribes the influence of public officials as “powerful shapers of perceptions” 
to their virtual monopoly on certain kinds of information, to the legitimacy of the 
regime with which they are identified, and to the intense identification of people with 
the state (101-102). 

17 Our conviction that the demands of the protestors, at least for the periods we 
examine, are shaped as much by their interaction with elites as by the structural factors 
(or contradictions) which produced the movements is one difference between this 
analysis and some Marxist interpretations. Thus if one explains the origins of protest 
not by the breakdown of social controls, or by relative deprivation, but by the basic 
and irreconcilable contradictions that characterize capitalist institutions, then the 
political agenda the movement evolves ought to reflect those basic and irreconcilable 
contradictions. Hence it would follow that working-class and lower-class movements 
arising in a corporate capitalist society are democratic and egalitarian or, in an older 
terminology, progressive, and not ultimately cooptable. Manuel Castells, for example, 
who has done some of the best work on social movements from a Marxist perspective, 
defines a movement as “a certain type of organization of social practices, the logic of 
whose development contradicts the institutionally dominant social logic” (93). By his 
definition Castells thus minimizes a host of problems in evaluating the political direc¬ 
tions of social movements that historical experience unfortunately does not minimize. 
See also Useem (1975, 27-35). Or, in another terminology, we do not take it for granted 
that conscious (or subjective) orientations of action approximate objective class 
interests (see Dahrendorf (174-176) and Balbus for a discussion of this distinction). 



18 


Poor People’s Movements 

But when people are thus encouraged in spirit without being 
appeased in fact, their defiance may escape the boundaries of electoral 
rituals, and escape the boundaries established by the political norms 
of the electoral-representative system in general. They may indeed 
become rebellious, but while their rebellion often appears chaotic 
from the perspective of conventional American politics, or from 
the perspective of some organizers, it ,is not chaotic at all; it is 
structured political behavior. When people riot in the streets, their 
behavior is socially patterned, and within those patterns, their actions 
are to some extent deliberate and purposeful. 


SOCIAL LOCATION AND FORMS OF DEFIANCE 

In contrast to the effort expended in accounting for the sources of 
insurgency, relatively little attention has been given to the question 
of why insurgency, when it does occur, takes one form and not 
another. Why, in other words, do people sometimes strike and at 
other times boycott, loot, or burn? Perhaps this question is seldom 
dealt with because the defiant behavior released often appears inchoate 
to analysts, and therefore not susceptible to explanation, as in the 
nineteenth-century view of mental illness. Thus Parsons character¬ 
izes reactions to strain as “irrational” (1965); Neil Smelser describes 
collective behavior as “primitive” and “magical”; and Kornhauser 
attributes unstable, extremist, and antidemocratic tendencies to mass 
movements. Many defiant forms of mass action that fall short of 
armed uprisings are thus often simply not recognized as intelligent 
political behavior at all. 

The common but false association of lower-class protest with vio¬ 
lence may also be a residue of this tradition and its view of the 
mob as normless and dangerous, the barbarian unchained. Mass 
violence is, to be sure, one of many forms of defiance, and perhaps a 
very elemental form, for it violates the very ground rules of civil 
society. And lower-class groups do on occasion resort to violence— 
to the destruction of property and persons—and perhaps this is more 
likely to be the case when they are deprived by their institutional 
location of the opportunity to use other forms of defiance. More 
typically, however, they are not violent, although they may be mili- 



19 The Structuring of Protest 

tant. They are usually not violent simply because the risks are too 
great; the penalties attached to the use of violence by the poor are 
too fearsome and too overwhelming. 18 (Of course, defiance by the 
lower class frequently results in violence when more powerful groups, 
discomfited or alarmed by the unruliness of the poor, use force to 
coerce them into docility. The substantial record of violence asso¬ 
ciated with protest movements in the United States is a record com¬ 
posed overwhelmingly of the casualties suffered by protestors at the 
hands of public or private armies.) 

Such perspectives have left us with images which serve to discredit 
lower-class movements by denying them meaning and legitimacy, 
instead of providing explanations. While the weakening of social con¬ 
trols that accompanies ruptures in social life may be an important 
precondition for popular uprisings, it does not follow either that the 
infrastructure of social life simply collapses, or that those who react 
to these disturbances by protesting are those who suffer the sharpest 
personal disorientation and alienation. To the contrary it may well 
be those whose lives are rooted in some institutional context, who 
are in regular relationships with others in similar straits, who are 
best able to redefine their travails as the fault of their rulers and not 
of themselves, and are best able to join together in collective protest. 19 
Thus while many of the southern blacks who participated in the 
civil rights movement were poor, recent migrants to the southern 
cities, or were unemployed, they were also linked together in the 


18 Gamson argues convincingly that rational calculations of the chances of success 
underlie the use of violence: “Violence should be viewed as an instrumental act, aimed 
at furthering the purpose of the group that uses it when they have some reason to 
think it will help their cause. . . . [It] grows from an impatience born of confidence and 
rising efficacy rather than the opposite. It occurs when hostility toward the victim 
renders it a relatively safe and costless strategy” (81). 

is It may be for this reason that the extensive data collected after the ghetto riots of 
the 1960s on the characteristics of rioters and nonrioters provided little evidence that 
the rioters themselves were more likely to be recent migrants or less educated or suffer 
higher rates of unemployment than the ghetto population as a whole. But while there 
are data to indicate that the rioters did not suffer higher indices of “rootlessness,” little 
is known about the networks or structures through which their defiance was mobilized. 
Tilly speculates interestingly on the relation between integration and deprivation by 
suggesting that the more integrated shopkeepers and artisans of Paris may have led the 
great outburst of the French Revolution precisely because they were in a better 
position to do so, and because they had a kind of leadership role, and were therefore 
responsive to the misery of the hordes of more impoverished Parisians (1964). Hobs- 
bawm and Rud£ ascribe a similar role to local artisans in the English farm laborers’ 
protests of the early nineteenth century (1968, 63-64). 



Poor People's Movements 20 

southern black church, which became the mobilizing node of move¬ 
ment actions. 20 

Just as electoral political institutions channel protest into voter 
activity in the United States, and may even confine it within these 
spheres if the disturbance is not severe and the electoral system 
appears responsive, so do other features of institutional life determine 
the forms that protest takes when it breaks out of the boundaries of 
electoral politics. Thus, it is no accident that some people strike, 
others riot, or loot the granaries, or burn the machines, for just as 
the patterns of daily life ordinarily assure mass quiescence, so do 
these same patterns influence the form defiance will take when it 
erupts. 

First, people experience deprivation and oppression within a con¬ 
crete setting, not as the end product of large and abstract processes, 
and it is the concrete experience that molds their discontent into 
specific grievances against specific targets. Workers experience the 
factory, the speeding rhythm of the assembly line, the foreman, the 
spies and the guards, the owner and the paycheck. They do not 
experience monopoly capitalism. People on relief experience the 
shabby waiting rooms, the overseer or the caseworker, and the dole. 
They do not experience American social welfare policy. Tenants 
experience the leaking ceilings and cold radiators, and they recognize 
the landlord. They do not recognize the banking, real estate, and 
construction systems. No small wonder, therefore, that when the 
poor rebel they so often rebel against the overseer of the poor, or the 
slumlord, or the middling merchant, and not against the banks or 
the governing elites to whom the overseer, the slumlord, and the 
merchant also defer. 21 In other words, it is the daily experience of 


20 Tilly, reviewing the literature on the French Revolution, makes a similar argument 
about the structuring of the great outbursts of collective violence among the sans¬ 
culottes: “[T]he insurrection was a continuation, in an extreme form, of their everyday 
politics” (1964, 114). See also the account by Hobsbawm and Rud£ of the role of the 
“village parliaments” and churches in English agricultural uprisings (1968, 59-60). 

21 Max Weber makes the similar point “that the class antagonisms that are conditioned 
through the market situation are usually most bitter between those who actually and 
directly participate as opponents in price wars. It is not the rentier, the share holder, 
and the banker who suffer the ill will of the worker, but almost exclusively the manu¬ 
facturer and the business executives who are the direct opponents of workers in price 
wars. This is so in spite of the fact that it is precisely the cash boxes of the rentier, the 
share holder, and the banker into which the more or less ‘unearned* gains flow, rather 



21 The Structuring of Protest 

people that shapes their grievances, establishes the measure of their 
demands, and points out the targets of their anger. 

Second, institutional patterns shape mass movements by shaping 
the collectivity out of which protest can arise. Institutional life 
aggregates people or disperses them, molds group identities, and 
draws people into the settings within which collective action can 
erupt. Thus factory work gathers men and women together, edu¬ 
cates them in a common experience, and educates them to the 
possibilities of cooperation and collective action. 22 Casual laborers 
or petty entrepreneurs, by contrast, are dispersed by their occupa¬ 
tions, and are therefore less likely to perceive their commonalities 
of position, and less likely to join together in collective action. 23 

Third, and most important, institutionaf roles determine the 
strategic opportunities for defiance, for it is typically by rebelling 
against the rules and authorities associated with their everyday activ¬ 
ities that people protest. Thus workers protest by striking. They are 
able to do so because they are drawn together in the factory setting, 
and their protests consist mainly in defying the rules and authorities 
associated with the workplace. The unemployed do not and cannot 
strike, even when they perceive that those who own the factories and 
businesses are to blame for their troubles. Instead, they riot in the 


than into the pockets of the manufacturers or the business executives” (186). Michael 
Schwartz illustrates this point in a study of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. The Texas 
members of the alliance singled out landlords and merchants as the target of their 
demands, and not the banks, speculators, and railroads who were ultimately responsible 
for their plight, because the tenant farmers had direct experience with the landlords 
and merchants. 

22 Marx and Engels made a similar argument about the conditions for the development 
of a revolutionary proletariat: “But with the development of industry, the proletariat 
not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength 
grows, and it feels its strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within 
the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery 
obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same 
low level” (1948, 17-18). By contrast, peasants were not likely to be mobilized to enforce 
their own class interest, for their “mode of production isolates them from one another 
instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse . . .” (1963, 123-124). This view of 
the revolutionary potential of the proletariat did not anticipate the ability of employers 
to manipulate the institutional context of factory work, to divide those they had 
brought together by, for example, elaborating job titles and hierarchies within the work 
place so as to “balkanize” the proletariat. See Gordon, Edwards, and Reich for a dis¬ 
cussion of the significance of this development. 

23 Useem, in his study of the draft-resistance movement that arose during the Vietnam 
War, concludes that the absence of an institutional setting that united the men subject 
to the draft severely hampered The Resistance in mobilizing its constituency (1973). 



Poor People’s Movements 22 

streets where they are forced to linger, or storm the relief centers, 
and it is difficult to imagine them doing otherwise. 

That they should do otherwise, however, is constantly asserted, 
and it is in such statements that the influence (as well as the absurdity) 
of the pluralist view becomes so evident. By denying the constraints 
which are imposed by institutional location, protest is readily dis¬ 
credited, as when insurgents are denounced for having ignored the 
true centers of power by attacking the wrong target by the wrong 
means. Thus welfare administrators admonish recipients for dis¬ 
rupting relief offices and propose instead that they learn how to 
lobby in the state legislature or Congress. But welfare clients cannot 
easily go to the state or national capital, and when a few do, they are 
of course ignored. Sometimes, however, they can disrupt relief offices, 
and that is harder to ignore. 

In the same vein, a favorite criticism of the student peace move¬ 
ment, often made by erstwhile sympathizers, was that it was foolish 
of the students to protest the Vietnam War by demonstrating at the 
universities and attacking blameless administrators and faculties. It 
was obviously not the universities that were waging the war, critics 
argued, but the military-industrial complex. The students were not 
so foolish, however. The exigencies of mass action are such that they 
were constrained to act out their defiance within the universities 
where they were physically located and could thus act collectively, 
and where they played a role on which an institution depended, so 
that their defiance mattered. 

Since our examples might suggest otherwise, we should note at 
this juncture that the tendency to impute freedom of choice in the 
evolution of political strategies is not peculiar to those who have 
large stakes in the preservation of some institution, whether welfare 
administrators or university professors. Nor is the tendency peculiar 
io tnose of more conservative political persuasion. Radical organizers 
make precisely the same assumption when they call upon the working 
class to organize in one way or another and to pursue one political 
strategy or another, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that 
social conditions preclude the exercise of such options. Opportunities 
fo) defiance are not created by analyses of power structures. If there 
is a genius in organizing, it is the capacity to sense what it is possible 
foi people to do under given conditions, and to then help them do it. 
In point of fact, however, most organizing ventures ask that people 
do what they cannot do, and the result is failure. 



23 The Structuring of Protest 

It is our second general point, then, that the opportunities for 
defiance are structured by features of institutional life. 2 * Simply put, 
people cannot defy institutions to which they have no access, and to 
which they make no contribution. 


The Limited Impact of Mass Defiance 

If mass defiance is neither freely available nor the forms it takes 
freely determined, it must also be said that it is generally of limited 
political impact. Still, some forms of protest appear to have more 
impact than others, thus posing an analytical question of consider¬ 
able importance. It is a question, however, that analysts of move¬ 
ments, especially analysts of contemporary American movements, 
have not generally asked. The literature abounds with studies of the 
social origins of protestors, the determinants of leadership styles, the 
struggles to cope with problems of organizational maintenance. Thus 
protest seems to be wondered about mainly for the many and 
fascinating aspects of social life which it exposes, but least of all for 
its chief significance: namely, that it is the means by which the least- 
privileged seek to wrest concessions from their rulers. 25 


24 This is perhaps what C. L. R. James means when he writes: “Workers are at their 
very best in collective action in the circumstances of their daily activity or crises arising 
from it” (95). Richard Flacks has also made a related argument regarding the im¬ 
portance of what he calls “everyday life” in shaping popular movements. 

*5 Michael Lipsky’s work is in a way an exception to these assertions, for he sets out 
specifically to evaluate protest as a strategy for achieving political goals (1968, 1970). 
The flaw in Lipsky’s work is not in his intellectual objective, which is important, but 
in his understanding of what it is that he is evaluating. Protest strategies, in Lipsky’s 
view, consist primarily of “showmanship” by powerless groups to gain the attention of 
potential sympathizers or “reference publics.” But by this definition, Lipsky rules out 
the historically most important forms of lower-class protest, such as strikes and riots. 
Lipsky was led to define protest so narrowly by the New York City rent strike on which 
his analysis is based, for that particular event, as Lipsky clearly shows, did consist 
primarily of speeches and press releases, and very little rent striking. Small wonder, 
therefore, that the outcome of the rent strike was determined by a scattering of liberal 
reform groups, provoked as they always have been by scandalous stories of slum housing, 
and appeased as they always have been by purely symbolic if not sentimental gestures. 
And small wonder that the slums remained and worsened. Lipsky concludes from this 
experience that protest is a weak and unstable resource, and that whatever responses 
are made by government will depend wholly on whether significant third parties share 
the protestors' objectives. But this conclusion, while valid for the particular case Lipsky 
studied, seems to us unwarranted as a generalization about protest. In our view, protest 



24 


Poor People’s Movements 

It is our judgment that the most useful way to think about the 
effectiveness of protest is to examine the disruptive effects on institu¬ 
tions of different forms of mass defiance, and then to examine the 
political reverberations of those disruptions. The impact of mass 
defiance is, in other words, not so much directly as indirectly felt. 
Protest is more likely to have a seriously disruptive impact when the 
protestors play a central role in an institution, and it is more likely 
to evoke wider political reverberations when powerful groups have 
large stakes in the disrupted institution. These relationships are 
almost totally ignored in the literature on social movements; there 
are no studies that catalogue and examine forms of defiance, the 
settings in which defiance is acted out, the institutional disruptions 
that do or do not result, and the varying political reverberations of 
these institutional disruptions. 


THE LIMITS OF INSTITUTIONAL DISRUPTION 

To refer to an institutional disruption is simply to note the obvious 
fact that institutional life depends upon conformity with established 
roles and compliance with established rules. Defiance may thus 
obstruct the normal operations of institutions. Factories are shut 
down when workers walk out or sit down; welfare bureaucracies are 
thrown into chaos when crowds demand relief; landlords may be 
bankrupted when tenants refuse to pay rent. In each of these cases, 
people cease to conform to accustomed institutional roles; they with¬ 
hold their accustomed cooperation, and by doing so, cause institu¬ 
tional disruptions. 

By our definition, disruption is simply the application of a nega¬ 
tive sanction, the withdrawal of a crucial contribution on which 
others depend, and it is therefore a natural resource for exerting 
power over others. This form of power is, in fact, regularly employed 
by individuals and groups linked together in many kinds of coopera- 


that consists merely of what Lipsky calls “noise" is hardly a resource at all, because it 
is hardly protest at all. Moreover, the responses that reference publics make to show¬ 
manship are of course weak and tokenistic. Reference publics do play a crucial role in 
determining responses to protest, not when they are provoked by “noise,” but when 
they are provoked by the serious institutional disruptions attendant upon mass defiance. 



25 The Structuring of Protest 

tive interaction, and particularly by producer groups. Farmers, for 
example, keep their products off the market in order to force up the 
price offered by buyers; doctors refuse to provide treatment unless 
their price is met; oil companies withhold supplies until price con¬ 
cessions are made. 26 

But the amount of leverage that a group gains by applying such 
negative sanctions is widely variable. Influence depends, first of all, 
on whether or not the contribution withheld is crucial to others; 
second, on whether or not those who have been affected by the 
disruption have resources to be conceded; and third, on whether 
the obstructionist group can protect itself adequately from reprisals. 
Once these criteria are stated, it becomes evident that the poor are 
usually in the least strategic position to benefit from defiance. 

Thus, in comparison with most producer groups, the lower classes 
are often in weak institutional locations to use disruption as a tactic 
for influence. Many among the lower class are in locations that make 
their cooperation less than crucial to the operation of major institu¬ 
tions. Those who work in economically marginal enterprises, or who 
perform marginally necessary functions in major enterprises, or those 
who are unemployed, do not perform roles on which major institu¬ 
tions depend. Indeed, some of the poor are sometimes so isolated 
from significant institutional participation that the only “contribu¬ 
tion” they can withhold is that of quiescence in civil life: they can 
riot. 

Moreover, those who manage the institutions in which many of 
the lower classes find themselves often have little to concede to 
disruptors. When lower-class groups do play an important role in 
an institution, as they do in sweatshops or in slum tenements, these 
institutions—operated as they often are by marginal entrepreneurs— 
may be incapable of yielding very much in response to disruptive 
pressure. 

Finally, lower-class groups have little ability to protect themselves 
against reprisals that can be employed by institutional managers. 


26 Spencer, McLoughlin, and Lawson, in their historical study of New York City tenant 
movements, provide an interesting example of the use of disruption, not by the tenants, 
but by the banks. Thus when Langdon Post, the Tenement House Commissioner under 
LaGuardia, tried to initiate a campaign to force compliance with the housing codes, 
“five savings banks owning 400 buildings on the Lower East Side threatened to vacate 
rather than comply. The president of the New York City Taxpayers’ Union warned that 
40,000 tenements would be abandoned.” Post withdrew his threat (10). 



26 


Poor People's Movements 

The poor do not have to be historians of the occasions when pro¬ 
testors have been jailed or shot down to understand this point. The 
lesson of their vulnerability is engraved in everyday life; it is evident 
in every police beating, in every eviction, in every lost job, in every 
relief termination. The very labels used to describe defiance by the 
lower classes—the pejorative labels of illegality and violence—testify 
to this vulnerability and serve to justify severe reprisals when they 
are imposed. By taking such labels for granted, we fail to recognize 
what these events really represent: a structure of political coercion 
inherent in the everyday life of the lower classes. 

We can now comment on the association of disruption with spon¬ 
taneity, perhaps another relic of traditional ways of thinking about 
lower-class uprisings, although here the issue is a little more com¬ 
plicated. Disruption itself is not necessarily spontaneous, but lower- 
class disruptions often are, in the sense that they are not planned 
and executed by formal organizations. In part, this testifies to the 
paucity of stable organizational resources among the poor, as well 
as to the cautious and moderate character of such organizations as 
are able to survive. But even if formal organizations existed, and 
even if they were not committed by the exigencies of their own sur¬ 
vival to more cautious tactics, the circumstances that lead to mass 
defiance by the lower class are extremely difficult to predict; and 
once defiance erupts, its direction is difficult for leaders to control. 
Rosa Luxemburg’s discussion of the mass strike is pertinent: 

. . . the mass strike is not artificially “made,” not “decided” out 
of the blue, not “propagated,” but rather it is an historical phe¬ 
nomenon which at a certain moment follows with historical neces¬ 
sity from the social relations. ... If anyone were to undertake 
to make the mass strike in general, as one form of proletarian 
action, the object of methodical agitation, and to go house to 
house peddling this “idea” in order gradually to win the working 
class to it, it would be as idle, as profitless, and as crazy an occupa¬ 
tion as it would be to seek to make the idea of the revolution 
or of the barricade struggle into the object of a particular agita¬ 
tion ... (231-245). 

Still, if the lower classes do not ordinarily have great disruptive 
power, and if the use of even that kind of power is not planned, it 
is the only power they do have. Their use of that power, the weigh¬ 
ing of gains and risks, is not calculated in board rooms; it wells up 
out of the terrible travails that people experience at times of rupture 



27 The Structuring of Protest 

and stress. 27 And at such times, disruptions by the poor may have 
reverberations that go beyond the institutions in which the disrup¬ 
tion is acted out. 


THE LIMITS OF POLITICAL DISRUPTION 

It is not the impact of disruptions on particular institutions that 
finally tests the power of the poor; it is the political impact of these 
disruptions. At this level, however, a new set of structuring mechan¬ 
isms intervenes, for the political impact of institutional disruptions 
is mediated by the electoral-representative system. 

Responses to disruption vary depending on electoral conditions. 
Ordinarily, during periods of stability, governmental leaders have 
three rather obvious options when an institutional disruption occurs. 
They may ignore it; they may employ punitive measures against the 
disruptors; or they may attempt to conciliate them. If the disruptive 
group has little political leverage in its own right, as is true of 
lower-class groups, it will either be ignored or repressed. It is more 
likely to be ignored when the disrupted institution is not central 
to the society as a whole, or to other more important groups. Thus if 
men and women run amok, disrupting the fabric of their own com¬ 
munities, as in the immigrant slums of the nineteenth century, the 
spectacle may be frightening, but it can be contained within the 
slums; it will not necessarily have much impact on the society as a 
whole, or on the well-being of other important groups. Similarly, 
when impoverished mobs demand relief, they may cause havoc in 
the relief offices, but chaotic relief offices are not a large problem for 
the society as a whole, or for important groups. Repression is more 
likely to be employed when central institutions are affected, as when 
railroad workers struck and rioted in the late nineteenth century, or 


27 Rosa Luxemburg's comments are again persuasive: “At the moment that a real, 
earnest period of mass strikes begins all these ‘calculations of costs’ change into the 
project of draining the ocean with a water glass. And it is an ocean of frightful priva¬ 
tions and sufferings which the proletarian masses buy with every revolution. The 
solution which a revolutionary period gives to these seemingly invincible difficulties is 
that along with them such an immense amount of mass idealism is let loose that the 
masses are insensitive to the sharpest sufferings. Neither revolution nor mass strikes can 
be made with the psychology of a trade unionist who will not cease work on May Day 
unless he is assured in advance of a determined support in the case of measures being 
taken against him” (246). 



28 


Poor People’s Movements 

when the police struck in Boston after the First World War. Either 
way, to be ignored or punished is what the poor ordinarily expect 
from government, because these are the responses they ordinarily 
evoke . 28 

But protest movements do not arise during ordinary periods; they 
arise when large-scale changes undermine political stability. It is 
this context, as we said earlier, that gives the poor hope and makes 
insurgency possible in the first place. It is this context that also 
makes political leaders somewhat vulnerable to protests by the poor. 

At times of rapid economic and social change, political leaders 
are far less free either to ignore disturbances or to employ punitive 
measures. At such times, the relationship of political leaders to their 
constituents is likely to become uncertain . 29 This unsettled state 
of political affairs makes the regime far more sensitive to disturb¬ 
ances, for it is not only more likely that previously uninvolved 
groups will be activated—the scope of conflict will be widened, in 
Schattschneider’s terminology—but that the scope of conflict will 
be widened at a time when political alignments have already become 
unpredictable . 30 

When a political leadership becomes unsure of its support, even 
disturbances that are isolated within peripheral institutions cannot 
be so safely ignored, for the mere appearance of trouble and dis¬ 
order is more threatening when political alignments are unstable. 
And when the disrupted institutions are central to economic pro¬ 
duction or to the stability of social life, it becomes imperative that 
normal operations be restored if the regime is to maintain support 


28 Disruptions confined within institutions have the characteristics that Schattschneider 
attributes to small conflicts: “It is one of the qualities of extremely small conflicts that 
the relative strengths of the contestants are likely to be known in advance. In this case 
the stronger side may impose its will on the weaker without an overt test of strength 
because people are not apt to fight if they are sure to lose" (4). 

29Lodhi and Tilly, in arguing against the social disorganization perspective, suggest 
that the amount of collective violence should be related to “the structure of power, the 
capacity of deprived groups for collective action, the forms of repression employed by 
the authorities, and the disparities between the weak and the powerful in shared under¬ 
standings about collective rights to action and to use of valued resources . . .” (316). 
It is our point that each of these factors changes, at least temporarily, during periods 
of serious and widespread instability. Most importantly, the resources available to the 
regime decline (316). 

so “To understand any conflict it is necessary, therefore, to keep constantly in mind the 
relations between the combatants and the audience because the audience is likely to do 
the kinds of things that determine the outcome of the fight. . . . The stronger con¬ 
testant may hesitate to use his strength because he docs not know whether or not he is 
going to be able to isolate his antagonist" (2). 



29 The Structuring of Protest 

among its constituents. Thus when industrial workers joined in 
massive strikes during the 1930s, they threatened the entire economy 
of the nation and, given the electoral instability of the times, 
threatened the future of the nation’s political leadership. Under these 
circumstances, government could hardly ignore the disturbances. 

Yet neither could government run the risks entailed by using 
massive force to subdue the strikers in the 1930s. It could not, in 
other words, simply avail itself of the option of repression. For one 
thing the striking workers, like the civil rights demonstrators in 
the 1960s, had aroused strong sympathy among groups that were 
crucial supporters of the regime. For another, unless insurgent groups 
are virtually of outcast status, permitting leaders of the regime to 
mobilize popular hatred against them, politically unstable conditions 
make the use of force risky, since the reactions of other aroused 
groups cannot be safely predicted. When government is unable to 
ignore the insurgents, and is unwilling to risk the uncertain reper¬ 
cussions of the use of force, it will make efforts to conciliate and 
disarm the protestors. 

These placating efforts will usually take several forms. First and 
most obviously, political leaders will offer concessions, or press elites 
in the private sector to offer concessions, to remedy some of the 
immediate grievances, both symbolic and tangible, of the disruptive 
group. Thus mobs of unemployed workers were granted relief in 
the 1930s; striking industrial workers won higher pay and shorter 
hours; and angry civil rights demonstrators were granted the right to 
desegregated public accommodations in the 1960s. 

Whether one takes such measures as evidence of the capacity of 
American political institutions for reform, or brushes them aside as 
mere tokenism, such concessions were not offered readily by govern¬ 
ment leaders. In each case, and in some cases more than in others, 
reform required a break with an established pattern of government 
accommodation to private elites. Thus the New Deal’s liberal relief 
policy was maintained despite widespread opposition from the busi¬ 
ness community. Striking workers in the mid-1930s succeeded in 
obtaining wage concessions from private industry only because state 
and national political leaders abandoned the age-old policy of using 
the coercive power of the state to curb strikes. The granting of de¬ 
segregated public accommodations required that national Democratic 
leaders turn against their traditional allies among southern planta¬ 
tion elites. In such instances concessions were won by the protestors 
only when political leaders were finally forced, out of a concern for 



30 


Poor People’s Movements 

their own survival, to act in ways which aroused the fierce opposition 
of economic elites. In short, under conditions of severe electoral 
instability, the alliance of public and private power is sometimes 
weakened, if only briefly, and at these moments a defiant poor may 
make gains. 31 

Second, political leaders, or elites allied with them, will try to 
quiet disturbances not only by dealing with immediate grievances, 
but by making efforts to channel the energies and angers of the 
protestors into more legitimate and less disruptive forms of political 
behavior, in part by offering incentives to movement leaders or, in 
other words, by coopting them. Thus relief demonstrators in both 
the 1930s and the 1960s were encouraged to learn to use administra¬ 
tive grievance procedures as an alternative to “merely” disrupting 
relief offices, while their leaders were offered positions as advisors to 
relief administrators. In the 1960s civil rights organizers left the 
streets to take jobs in the Great Society programs; and as rioting 
spread in the northern cities, street leaders in the ghettos were 
encouraged to join in “dialogues” with municipal officials, and some 
were offered positions in municipal agencies. 32 

Third, the measures promulgated by government at times of dis¬ 
turbance may be designed not to conciliate the protestors, but to 
undermine whatever sympathy the protesting group has been able to 
command from a wider public. Usually this is achieved through new 


31 The rapidly growing Marxist literature on the theory of the capitalist state stresses 
legitimation or social cohesion as one of the two primary functions of the state (the 
other being the maintenance of the conditions for capitalist accumulation). The 
interpretation of electoral-representative institutions presented here is consistent with 
that general perspective. As noted earlier, we view the wide distribution and exercise of 
the franchise as an important source of the legitimacy of state authority. Electoral 
activities generate a belief in government as the instrument of a broad majority rather 
than of particular interests or a particular class. It is this phenomenon which Marx 
defined as the false universality of the state. (See also Poulantzas and Bridges for a 
discussion of suffrage, and political parties based on suffrage, from this perspective.) 
We argue further that the franchise plays a major role in protecting the legitimacy of 
the state against periodic challenges. Electoral contests serve as a signal or barometer of 
discontent and disaffection, and the threat of electoral defeat constrains state officials to 
promulgate measures that will quiet discontent and restore legitimacy. 

32 The newcomers to officialdom were by and large absorbed into local agencies that 
made relatively insignificant decisions about service delivery to the insurgent popula¬ 
tion. The analogy to the use of natives by colonial administrations is obvious. Anderson 
and Friedland say in general of such agencies and their activities that they “encourage 
citizen participation at a local level insulated from national politics ...” (21). See 
also Katznelson for a discussion of “state-sponsored creation of client-patron/broker 
links” (227). 




31 The Structuring of Protest 

programs that appear to meet the moral demands of the movement, 
and thus rob it of support without actually yielding much by way 
of tangible gains. A striking example was the passage of the pension 
provisions of the Social Security Act. The organized aged in the 
Townsend Movement were demanding pensions of $200 a month, 
with no strings attached, and they had managed to induce some 25 
million people to sign supporting petitions. As it turned out, the 
Social Security Act, while it provided a measure of security for many 
of the future aged, did nothing for the members of the Townsend 
Movement, none of whom would be covered by a work-related 
insurance scheme since they were no longer working, and most of 
whom would in any case be dead when the payments were to begin 
some seven years later. But the pension provisions of the Social 
Security Act answered the moral claims of the movement. In prin¬ 
ciple, government had acted to protect America’s aged, thus severing 
any identification between those who would be old in the future 
and those who were already old. The Social Security Act effectively 
dampened public support for the Townsend Plan while yielding the 
old people nothing. Other examples of responses which undermine 
public support abound. The widely heralded federal programs for 
the ghettos in the 1960s were neither designed nor funded in a way 
that made it possible for them to have substantial impact on poverty 
or on the traumas of ghetto life. But the publicity attached to the 
programs—the din and blare about a “war on poverty” and the 
development of “model cities”—did much to appease the liberal 
sympathizers with urban blacks. 

Finally, these apparently conciliatory measures make it possible 
for government to safely employ repressive measures as well. Typi¬ 
cally, leaders and groups who are more disruptive, or who spurn 
the concessions offered, are singled out for arbitrary police action or 
for more formal legal harassment through congressional investiga¬ 
tions or through the courts. In the context of much-publicized efforts 
by government to ease the grievances of disaffected groups, coercive 
measures of this kind are not likely to arouse indignation among 
sympathetic publics. Indeed, this dual strategy is useful in another 
way, for it serves to cast an aura of balance and judiciousness over 
government action. 

The main point, however, is simply that the political impact of 
institutional disruptions depends upon electoral conditions. Even 
serious disruptions, such as industrial strikes, will force concessions 



32 


Poor People’s Movements 

only when the calculus of electoral instability favors the protestors. 
And even then, when the protestors succeed in forcing government 
to respond, they do not dictate the content of those responses. As 
to the variety of specific circumstances which determine how much 
the protestors will gain and how much they will lose, we still have 
a great deal to learn. 


THE DEMISE OF PROTEST 

It is not surprising that, taken together, these efforts to conciliate 
and disarm usually lead to the demise of the protest movement, 
partly by transforming the movement itself, and partly by transform¬ 
ing the political climate which nourishes protest. With these changes, 
the array of institutional controls which ordinarily restrain protest 
is restored, and political influence is once more denied to the lower 
class. 

We said that one form of government response was to make con¬ 
cessions to the protestors, yielding them something of what they 
demanded, either symbolic or material. But the mere granting of 
such concessions is probably not very important in accounting for 
the demise of a movement. For one thing, whatever is yielded is 
usually modest if not meager; for another, even modest concessions 
demonstrate that protest “works,” a circumstance that might as easily 
be expected to fuel a movement as to pacify it. 

But concessions are rarely unencumbered. If they are given at all, 
they are usually part and parcel of measures to reintegrate the move¬ 
ment into normal political channels and to absorb its leaders into 
stable institutional roles. Thus the right of industrial workers to 
unionize, won in response to massive and disruptive strikes in the 
1930s, meant that workers were encouraged to use newly established 
grievance procedures in place of the sit-down or the wildcat strike; 
and the new union leaders, now absorbed in relations with factory 
management and in the councils of the Democratic Party, became the 
ideological proponents and organizational leaders of this strategy 
of normalcy and moderation. Similarly, when blacks won the vote in 
the South and a share of patronage in the municipalities of the North 
in response to the disturbances of the 1960s, black leaders were 
absorbed into electoral and bureaucratic politics and became the 



33 The Structuring of Protest 

ideological proponents of the shift “from protest to politics” 
(Rustin). 33 

This feature of government action deserves some explanation 
because the main reintegrative measures—the right to organize, the 
right tc vote, black representation in city government—were also 
responses to specific demands made by the protestors themselves. To 
all appearances, government simply acted to redress felt grievances. 
But the process was by no means as straightforward as that. As we 
suggested earlier, the movements had arisen through interaction with 
elites, and had been led to make the demands they made in response 
to early encouragement by political leaders. Nor was it fortuitous 
that political leaders came to proclaim as just such causes as the right 
to organize or the right to vote or the right to “citizen participation.” 
In each case, elites responded to discontent by proposing reforms 
with which they had experience, and which consisted mainly of 
extending established procedures to new groups or to new institu¬ 
tional arenas. Collective bargaining was not invented in the 1930s, 
nor the franchise in the 1960s. Driven by turmoil, political leaders 
proposed reforms that were in a sense prefigured by institutional 
arrangements that already existed, that were drawn from a repertoire 
provided by existing traditions. And an aroused people responded by 
demanding simply what political leaders had said they should have. 
If through some accident of history they had done otherwise, if 
industrial workers had demanded public ownership of factories, they 
would probably have still gotten unionism, if they got anything at all; 
and if impoverished southern blacks had demanded land reform, they 
would probably have still gotten the vote. 

At the same time that government makes efforts to reintegrate 
disaffected groups, and to guide them into less politically disturbing 
forms of behavior, it also moves to isolate them from potential sup¬ 
porters and, by doing so, diminishes the morale of the movement. 
Finally, while the movement is eroding under these influences, its 


33 James Q. Wilson seems to us to miss the point when he ascribes the demise of SNCC 
and CORE to failure and rebuff, and the intolerable strain this exerted on these 
“redemptive” organizations which required a total transformation of society on the one 
hand, and extraordinary commitments from their members on the other hand. First, 
and most important, by no stretch of the reasonable imagination can SNCC and CORE 
be said to have failed, as we will explain in chapter 4. Second, while these may have 
been redemptive organizations, their demise was most specifically the result of the 
impact of government measures on both cadres and constituency. It was government 
responses that generated factionalism and disillusionment, and not simply “the dis¬ 
illusionment that inevitably afflicts a redemptive organization” (180-182). 



34 


Poor People’s Movements 

leaders attracted by new opportunities, its followers conciliated, 
confused, or discouraged, the show of repressive force against recal¬ 
citrant elements demolishes the few who are left. 

However, the more far-reaching changes do not occur within the 
movement, but in the political context which nourished the move¬ 
ment in the first place. The agitated and defiant people who compose 
the movement are but a small proportion of the discontented popu¬ 
lation on which it draws. Presumably if some leaders were coopted, 
new leaders would arise; if some participants were appeased or dis¬ 
couraged, others would take their place. But this does not happen, 
because government’s responses not only destroy the movement, they 
also transform the political climate which makes protest possible. 
The concessions to the protestors, the efforts to “bring them into the 
system,” and in particular the measures aimed at potential sup 
porters, all work to create a powerful image of a benevolent and 
responsive government that answers grievances and solves problems. 
As a result, whatever support might have existed among the larger 
population dwindles. Moreover, the display of government benevo¬ 
lence stimulates antagonist groups, and triggers the antagonistic 
sentiments of more neutral sectors. The “tide of public opinion” 
begins to turn—against labor in the late 1930s, against blacks in the 
late 1960s. And as it does, the definitions put forward by political 
leaders also change, particularly when prodded by contenders for 
political office who sense the shift in popular mood, and the weak¬ 
nesses it reveals in an incumbent’s support. Thus in the late 1960s, 
Republican leaders took advantage of white resentment against blacks 
to attract Democratic voters, raising cries of “law and order” and 
“workfare not welfare”—the code words for racial antagonism. Such 
a change is ominous. Where once the powerful voices of the land 
enunciated a rhetoric that gave courage to the poor, now they 
enunciate a rhetoric that erases hope, and implants fear. The point 
should be evident that as these various circumstances combine, 
defiance is no longer possible. 


THE RESIDUE OF REFORM 

When protest subsides, concessions may be withdrawn. Thus when 
the unemployed become docile, the relief rolls are cut even though 
many are still unemployed; when the ghetto becomes quiescent, 



35 The Structuring of Protest 

evictions are resumed. The reason is simple enough. Since the poor 
no longer pose the threat of disruption, they no longer exert lever¬ 
age on political leaders; there is no need for conciliation. This is 
particularly the case in a climate of growing political hostility, for 
the concessions granted are likely to become the focus of resentment 
by other groups. 

But some concessions are not withdrawn. As the tide of turbulence 
recedes, major institutional changes sometimes remain. Thus the 
right of workers to join unions was not rescinded when turmoil sub¬ 
sided (although some of the rights ceded to unions were withdrawn). 
And it is not likely that the franchise granted to blacks in the South 
will be taken back (although just that happened in the post-Recon- 
struction period). Why, then, are some concessions withdrawn while 
others become permanent institutional reforms? 

The answer, perhaps, is that while some of the reforms granted 
during periods of turmoil are costly or repugnant to various groups 
in the society, and are therefore suffered only under duress, other 
innovations turn out to be compatible (or at least not incompatible) 
with the interests of more powerful groups, most importantly with 
the interests of dominant economic groups. Such an assertion has the 
aura of a conspiracy theory, but in fact the process is not conspira¬ 
torial at all. Major industrialists had resisted unionization, but once 
forced to concede it as the price of industrial peace, they gradually 
discovered that labor unions constituted a useful mechanism to 
regulate the labor force. The problem of disciplining industrial 
labor had been developing over the course of a century. The depres¬ 
sion produced the political turmoil through which a solution was 
forged. Nor was the solution simply snatched from the air. As noted 
earlier, collective bargaining was a tried and tested method of deal¬ 
ing with labor disturbances. The tumult of the 1930s made the use 
of this method imperative; once implemented, the reforms were 
institutionalized because they continued to prove useful. 

Similarly, southern economic elites had no interest in ceding 
southern blacks the franchise. But their stakes in disfranchising 
blacks had diminished. The old plantation economy was losing 
ground to new industrial enterprises; plantation-based elites were 
losing ground to economic dominants based in industry. The feudal 
political arrangements on which a plantation economy had relied 
were no longer of central importance, and certainly they were not of 
central importance to the new economic elites. Black uprisings, by 
forcing the extension of the franchise and the modernization of 



36 


Poor People's Movements 

southern politics, thus helped seal a fissure in the institutional fabric 
of American society, a fissure resulting from the growing inconsist¬ 
ency between the economic and political institutions of the South. 

What these examples suggest is that protesters win, if they win 
at all, what historical circumstances has already made ready to he 
conceded. Still, as Alan Wolfe has said, governments do not change 
magically through some “historical radical transformation,” but only 
through the actual struggles of the time (154). When people are 
finally roused to protest against great odds, they take the only options 
available to them within the limits imposed by their social circum¬ 
stances. Those who refuse to recognize these limits not only blindly 
consign lower-class protests to the realm of the semirational, but also 
blindly continue to pretend that other, more regular options for 
political influence are widely available in the American political 
system. 


A Note on the Role 
of Protest Leadership 

The main point of this chapter is that both the limitations and 
opportunities for mass protest are shaped by social conditions. The 
implications for the role of leadership in protest movements can be 
briefly summarized. 

Protest wells up in response to momentous changes in the institu¬ 
tional order. It is not created by organizers and leaders. 

Once protest erupts, the specific forms it takes are largely deter¬ 
mined by features of social structure. Organizers and leaders who 
contrive strategies that ignore the social location of the people they 
seek to mobilize can only fail. 

Elites respond to the institutional disruptions that protest causes, 
as well as to other powerful institutional imperatives. Elite responses 
are not significantly shaped by the demands of leaders and organizers. 
Nor are elite responses significantly shaped by formally structured 
organizations of the poor. Whatever influence lower-class groups 
occasionally exert in American politics does not result from organi¬ 
zation, but from mass protest and the disruptive consequences of 
protest. 

Finally, protest in the United States has been episodic and trans¬ 
ient, for as it gains momentum, so too do various forms of institu- 



37 The Structuring of Protest 

tional accommodation and coercion that have the effect of restoring 
quiescence. Organizers and leaders cannot prevent the ebbing of 
protest, nor the erosion of whatever influence protest yielded the 
lower class. They can only try to win whatever can be won while it 
can be won. 

In these major ways protest movements are shaped by institutional 
conditions, and not by the purposive efforts of leaders and organizers. 
The limitations are large and unyielding. Yet within the boundaries 
created by these limitations, some latitude for purposive effort re¬ 
mains. Organizers and leaders choose to do one thing, or they choose 
to do another, and what they choose to do affects to some degree the 
course of the protest movement. If the area of latitude is less than 
leaders and organizers would prefer, it is also not enlarged when 
they proceed as if institutional limitations did not in fact exist by 
undertaking strategies which fly in the face of these constraints. The 
wiser course is to understand these limitations, and to exploit what¬ 
ever latitude remains to enlarge the potential influence of the lower 
class. And if our conclusions are correct, what this means is that 
strategies must be pursued that escalate the momentum and impact 
of disruptive protest at each stage in its emergence and evolution. 

With these propositions in mind, we now turn to an analysis of 
recent protest movements. 


References 

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Ash, Roberta. Social Movements in America. Chicago: Markham Pub¬ 
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Balbus, Isaac D. “The Concept of Interest in Pluralist and Marxian 
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Bloom, Howard S., and Price, Douglas H. “Voter Response to Short- 
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Bridges, Amy. “Nicos Poulantzas and the Marxist Theory of the 
State.” Politics and Society 4 (Winter 1974). 

Burnham, Walter Dean. “The Changing Shape of the American Poli¬ 
tical Universe.” American Political Science Review 59 (1965). 



Poor People’s Movements 38 

-. Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics . 

New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1970. 

Campbell, Angus; Converse, Philip E.; Miller, Warren E.; and Stokes, 
Donald E. The American Voter. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1960. 

Castells, Manuel. “L’ Analyse Interdisciplinaire de la Croissance 
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Dahrendorf, Ralf. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stan¬ 
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Davies, James C. “Toward a Theory of Revolution." American Soci¬ 
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Dollard, John, et al. Frustration and Aggression. New Haven: Yale 
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Edelman, Murray. Politics as Symbolic Action. New Haven: Yale Uni¬ 
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Engels, Frederick. “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific." In Engels : 
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-. “Introduction to Karl Marx’s ‘The Class Struggles in France, 

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Feierabend, Ivo; Feierabend, Rosalind L.; and Nesvold, Betty A. 
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Violence in America: A Staff Report , edited by Hugh Davis Graham and 
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Flacks, Richard. “Making History vs. Making Life: Dilemmas of an 
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Gamson, William A. The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, 
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Geschwender, James. “Social Structure and the Negro Revolt: An 
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Gordon, David M.; Edwards, Richard C.; and Reich, Michael. “Labor 
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Gurr, Ted Robert. “Psychological Factors in Civil Violence." World 
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-. Why Men Rebel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 

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Gusfield, Joseph R., ed. Protest, Reform and Revolt: A Reader in 
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39 The Structuring of Protest 

Hobsbawm, Eric. Primitive Rebels. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 
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-, and Rud£, George. Captain Swing. New York: Pantheon 

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Howard, Dick, ed. Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg. New York: 
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Huntington, Samuel P. Political Order in Changing Societies. New 
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James, C. L. R.; Lee, Grace C.; and Chaulieu, Pierre. Facing Reality. 
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Katznelson, Ira. “The Crisis of the Capitalist City: Urban Politics and 
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Kornhauser, William. The Politics of Mass Society. New York: The 
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Kramer, Gerald H. “Short-Term Fluctuations in U. S. Voting Behavior, 
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Lipsky, Michael. “Protest as a Political Resource.” American Political 
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Poor People’s Movements 

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CHAPTER 

2 


The Unemployed 
Workers’ Movement 


The depression movements of the unemployed and of industrial 
workers followed a period of economic breakdown that produced 
distress and confusion in the daily lives of millions of people, and 
produced contradiction and confusion in the posture of elites. For 
those still working, the discontents released by economic collapse 
during the 1930s were expressed in struggles within the factory sys¬ 
tem, which we will turn to in the next chapter. But the men and 
women for whom life had changed most drastically and immediately 
were no longer in the factories. They were among the masses of the 
unemployed, and their struggle had to take another form, in another 
institutional context. The depression saw the rise and fall of the 
largest movement of the unemployed this country has known, and 
the institution against which the movement was inevitably pitted 
was the relief system. 

At the time of the Great Depression, formal arrangements for relief 
of the indigent were sparse and fragmented. In many places, includ¬ 
ing New York City and Philadelphia, there simply was no “outdoor’* 
relief (the term used to describe aid given to people who were not 
institutionalized). Even where public relief agencies existed, what 
little was actually given was usually provided by private charities. 
But niggardly aid and fragmented adminstration did not signify an 
underdeveloped institution. To the contrary, a national relief sys¬ 
tem did exist. Despite the diversity of administrative auspices, the 
norms that guided the giving of relief were everywhere quite 
similar. The dole was anathema to the American spirit of work and 
self-sufficiency. Therefore, it should be dispensed to as few as pos- 


41 



42 


Poor People's Movements 

sible and made as harsh as possible to discourage reliance upon it. 
Accordingly, very little was given, and then only to a handful of the 
aged and crippled, widowed and orphaned—to “deserving” people 
who clearly were not able to work. 

These practices were not only a reflection of harshly individualistic 
American attitudes. They were also a reflection of American eco¬ 
nomic realities. Work and self-reliance meant grueling toil at low 
wages for many people. So long as that was so, the dole could not 
be dispensed permissively for fear some would choose it over work. 
Thus, most of the poor were simply excluded from aid, ensuring 
that they had no alternative but to search for whatever work they 
could find at whatever wage was offered. And if they found no 
work, then they would have to survive by whatever means they 
could. 

But this much could have been achieved without any relief 
arrangements at all; the threat of starvation was sufficient. The more 
important function of the relief system was accomplished, not by re¬ 
fusing relief, but by degrading and making outcasts of those few who 
did get aid. At the time of the Great Depression the main legal 
arrangement for the care of the destitute was incarceration in alms¬ 
houses or workhouses. In some places the care of paupers was still 
contracted to the lowest bidder, and destitute orphans were inden¬ 
tured to those who would feed them in exchange for whatever labor 
they could perform. The constitutions of fourteen states denied the 
franchise to paupers (Brown, 9-10; Woodroofe, 154). By such prac¬ 
tices the relief system created a clearly demarcated and degraded 
class, a class of pariahs whose numbers were small but whose fate 
loomed large in the lives of those who lived close to indigence, 
warning them always of a life even worse than hard work and severe 
poverty. 

The meaning of these relief practices was thus not only in their 
inhumanity but in the functions they performed in legitimating 
work in the face of the extreme inequalities generated by American 
capitalism. For many people work was hard and the rewards few, 
and the constraints of tradition weak in the face of the transforma¬ 
tions wrought by industrial capitalism. The discontent these poor 
might have felt was muffled, in part, by the relief system and the 
image of the terrible humiliation inflicted on those who became 
paupers. The practices called charity were shaped, in short, by eco¬ 
nomic imperatives, by the need for cheap and docile labor on the 
farms and in the factories of a burgeoning capitalist society. For the 



43 The Unemployed Workers’ Movement 

practices of relief to change, this subordination of the institution of 
charity to the institution of profit had to be ruptured. 

The wonder of this relief system, however, was that it generated 
such shame and fear as to lead the poor to acquiesce in its harsh and 
restrictive practices. In part the poor acquiesced simply because they 
shared American beliefs in the virtue of work and self-sufficiency, 
and in the possibility of work and self-sufficiency for those who were 
ambitious and deserving. But any doubts they might otherwise have 
felt about this judicious sorting out of the worthy by the American 
marketplace were dispelled by the spectacle of the degraded pauper 
displayed by the relief system. Even when unemployment was en¬ 
demic, most people endured in silence, blaming themselves for their 
misfortunes. They did not demand relief, for to do so was to give 
up the struggle to remain above the despised pauper class. Most of 
the time, the unemployed poor obeyed the prohibition against going 
on the dole, and by doing so collaborated in their own misery and 
in the punitive practices of local relief officials. 

Occasionally, however, unemployment reached calamitous levels 
and the jobless rebelled. At the depths of each of the recurrent de¬ 
pressions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people 
joined together and demanded some form of aid to ease their dis¬ 
tress. In the slump of 1837 some 20,000 unemployed in Phila¬ 
delphia assembled to demand, among other things, that the national 
government relieve distress among the unemployed by a public 
works program (Foner, 162), and in New York City, a crowd of 
thousands in City Hall Park protested against the “monopolies” and 
the high cost of food and rent. The crowd then paraded to the 
wholesale flour depot, and dumped flour and wheat in the streets 
(Gutman, 1976, 60-61). In the panic of 1857 protests of the un¬ 
employed emerged in several big cities. Ten thousand Philadelphians 
rallied “to stimulate their representatives in the State House to an 
appreciation of their troubles,” and a system of ward associations was 
set up to issue food to the needy (Feder, 32). In New York a meeting 
of 15,000 in Tompkins Square to demand work culminated in the 
destruction of fences and benches and the seizure of food wagons, 
although in this instance the workers got neither jobs nor relief, and 
federal troops were called in (Feder, 35). The depression of 1873 
stimulated new demonstrations. In New York City, rallies drew 
10,000 to 15,000 people who were dispersed by mounted police, and 
in Chicago, mass meetings of the unemployed, organized by an¬ 
archists under the slogan “Bread or Blood,” culminated in a march 



44 


Poor People’s Movements 

of 20,000 on the City Council (Feder, 52; Boyer and Morais, 86). 
Subsequently, unemployed workers stormed the offices of the Chicago 
Relief and Aid Society, swamping the Society with applications for 
aid. The Society surrendered, and about 10,000 were given relief over 
the next year (Feder, 52; Seymour, August 1937, 8). 1 In the depres¬ 
sion of 1884 the unemployed in Chicago marched again, this time 
into better-off neighborhoods (Montgomery, 20), and in 1893 a new 
and bitter depression led to a series of marches on Washington by 
the unemployed, the best known of which was of course “Coxey’s 
army.” Coxey’s marchers got nothing, but mass demonstrations in 
the big industrial cities did succeed at least in getting soup kitchens 
and, in some places, local public works projects as well. 

These experiences suggest that when unemployment is severe and 
widespread, at least a partial transvaluation may occur among the 
poor. The prohibition against the dole may weaken, if only because 
the extent of distress belies the customary conviction that one’s eco¬ 
nomic fortunes and misfortunes are a matter of personal responsi¬ 
bility, of individual failure. At such times large numbers of the poor 
demand relief, the relief of work or the relief of food and money. 
This transvaluation occurred again in the Great Depression, and just 
as the scale of the calamity in the 1930s was unparalleled, so too was 
the protest movement that arose among the unemployed. 


The Great Depression: 

Preconditions for Insurgency 

The depression came suddenly, at a time when the American belief 
in unprecedented and unbroken prosperity had never been so fer¬ 
vent, earlier depressions notwithstanding. People were taken by 
surprise, the rulers as much as the ruled, and it took time for the 
political forces set in motion by the calamity to emerge. Then, as 
the depression continued and worsened, the harshening and dis¬ 
ordering of a way of life began to take form in rising popular dis¬ 
content. The actions of elites added momentum to this process, for 
they too were shaken and divided, and their cacaphonic accusations 


1 Gutman describes these 1873 protests and the organizations that led them in a number 
of industrial cities (1965). 



45 The Unemployed Workers' Movement 

and proposals heightened the sense of indignation that was spreading. 
In the period of general political uncertainty that ensued, protest 
movements emerged among different groups, focusing on different 
institutional grievances. The earliest uprisings occurred among the 
unemployed. 


THE ECONOMIC COLLAPSE 

The decade preceding the depression had been a boom time for 
American business. National income rose from about $60 billion in 
1922 to $87 billion in 1929, and by June of 1929 the index of indus¬ 
trial production reached its highest point ever (Bernstein, 1970, 54, 
251). For the nation as a whole prosperity had never seemed so 
assured. 

These were not nearly such good years for many workers and 
farmers, however. Rising productivity and profits in the twenties 
were largely the result of increasing mechanization rather than the 
expansion of the labor force. Meanwhile depressed farm prices (the 
result of overproduction stimulated by heavy immigration earlier in 
the century, followed by the demand for food during World War I 
when the United States was feeding its allies) were forcing millions 
of people off the land and to the cities. The resulting labor surplus 
meant that for the first time in the American experience, prosperity 
was accompanied by continuing high unemployment throughout the 
decade (Lescohier and Brandeis, 137-151). The labor surplus also 
accounts for the fact that wages remained relatively fixed, while 
profits soared. Moreover, some industries, particularly mining and 
textiles, were in a slump throughout the decade, and these workers 
suffered sharp wage cuts. But the hardships of particular groups 
remained submerged, because the people who bore them were sub¬ 
dued by the aura of prosperity that symbolized the era. These were 
self-evidently good times in America; anyone who really wanted 
to work could ostensibly earn a livelihood. 

Then, in 1929, the production index began to slip from its June 
high, and by October, after a dizzying burst of speculation, the stock 
market reacted in the panic known as Black Thursday. The impact 
on unemployment was immediate. One government official judged 
that the numbers out of work rose by 2.5 million within two weeks 
of the crash, and President Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic 



46 


Poor People’s Movements 

Security later estimated that the number of unemployed jumped 
from 429,000 in October 1929 to 4,065,000 in January 1930 (Bern¬ 
stein, 1970, 254). The number rose steadily to 8 million in January 
1931, and to 9 million in October (Bernstein, 1970, 254-257). 

Particular industries were devastated, as were the towns where 
they were located. Bernstein reports, for example, that by January 
1930, 30 to 40 percent of the male labor force was out of work in 
Toledo, where Willys-Overland had cut its payroll from 20,000 
to 4,000. In Detroit a personal loan company discovered in March 
that half its outstanding commitments were from people who 
had lost their jobs. By the end of that year almost half of New 
England’s textile workers were unemployed, and the Metropolitan 
Life Insurance Company reported that 24 percent of its industrial 
policy holders in forty-six larger cities were jobless. The Ford Motor 
Company employed 130,000 workers in the spring of 1929; by the 
summer of 1931 there were only 37,000 left on the payroll (Bern¬ 
stein, 1970, 255-256). Sidney Hillman reported that at the height 
of the season in January 1932 only 10 percent of his New York 
garment workers were employed (Bernstein, 1970, 317). The chronic 
unemployment of the 1920s had become catastrophic unemployment. 

Most of the nation’s public figures were stubbornly unwilling to 
recognize the disaster, at least at first. The White House issued 
messages of reassurance that “the fundamental strength of the 
Nation’s economic life is unimpaired,” that recovery is “just around 
the corner,” and that in any case the temporary downturn was being 
stemmed by modest public works expenditures. Official refusal to 
recognize the disaster early in the depression also took form in 
White House denials that there was very much unemployment at all. 
If the 1930 census of unemployment did not support such conten¬ 
tions, Hoover argued that it was because the enumerators “had to 
list the shiftless citizen, who had no intention of living by work, as 
unemployed” (cited in Edelman, 184). 2 If there was not very much 
unemployment, it followed that there was not very much need for 
unusual measures to aid the unemployed. Hoover limited himself 
mainly to offering rhetorical encouragement of local charity efforts. 


2 When Congress required the Bureau of the Census to count unemployment in the 
census of 1930, the bureau reported some 3 million out of work or laid off, a figure that 
was treated as absurdly low by experts. Hoover found the need to further reduce the 
figure by explaining away 500,000 to 1 million as people who had no intention of 
seeking jobs, and another 500,000 to 1 million as people who were simply between jobs 
(Bernstein, 1970, 268). 




47 The Unemployed Workers* Movement 

In October 1930 he established an Emergency Committee for Em¬ 
ployment, but ignored the recommendation of Colonel Arthur 
Woods, head of the committee, that the White House seek substantial 
appropriations from Congress for public works. A second com¬ 
mittee, appointed in August 1931, was called the Organization on 
Employment Relief. But while its name revealed some dim acknowl¬ 
edgment of the problem, its activities, consisting of “coordinating” 
local efforts and exhorting American citizens to contribute to local 
charities, did not. 

Nor, at first, were local officials much better attuned to the scale 
of the problem. City leaders in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Kansas City, 
Milwaukee, and Louisville initiated “make a job” or “man a block” 
campaigns, assigning the jobless to do snow removal or street clean¬ 
ing while at the same time allowing them to canvass households for 
small donations. Philadelphia’s mayor appointed a committee to 
organize the peddling of fruit (Colcord, 166), clubs and restaurants 
in some places began to participate in schemes for saving food left¬ 
overs for the unemployed, and some communities set aside plots of 
land so that the jobless could grow vegetables to ease their plight. 
The problem was defined as minor, and temporary, and so were the 
gestures made to deal with it. Until 1932 even the newspapers carried 
little news of the depression. Middletown newspapers made their 
first mention in April 1930 under the caption “Factories are Recover¬ 
ing from Bad Slump” (Lynd and Lynd, 17). 

As the depression worsened in 1930 there were stirrings in Con¬ 
gress for federal action to alleviate unemployment by reviving and 
expanding the United States Employment Service and by expanding 
federal public works projects. The measures proposed were modest 
and the Congress elected in the fall of 1930 passed both bills. Hoover, 
ever staunch, vetoed the first and emasculated the second by appoint¬ 
ing administrators hostile to federal public works. Nothing had been 
done to deal with the disaster except, perhaps, to begin to acknowl¬ 
edge it. 


THE IMPACT ON DAILY LIFE 

The habit of work, and the wages of work, underpin a way of life. 
As unemployment continued to grow, and the wages of those still 
employed shriveled, that way of life crumbled. Despite denials by 



48 


Poor People's Movements 

the public figures of the nation, the evidence was there in the daily 
lives of the people. One dramatic sign was the spread of malnutrition 
and disease. Surveys of school children showed that one quarter suf¬ 
fered from malnutrition, new patients in tuberculosis clinics almost 
doubled, and a study by the U. S. Public Health Service revealed 
that the families of unemployed workers suffered 66 percent more 
illness than the families of employed workers. In 1931 New York 
City hospitals reported about one hundred cases of actual starvation 
(Bernstein, 1970, 331). Another sign was the weakening of family 
life as ties wore thin under the strains and humiliations of poverty. 
Desertions became common and divorce rates rose, while marriage 
rates and the birthrate dropped. 3 And as poverty deepened and 
morale weakened, the crime rate rose, as did drunkenness and sexual 
promiscuity, and the suicide rate (Bernstein, 1970, 332). 

Without work, and with family life weakened, men and women, 
especially the young, took to the road. At first the movement was 
back to the farms. But soon farm income fell precipitously as well, 
and then there was no place to go except to move on, shunted from 
town to town. Just how many transients there were is not known, 
but the Southern Pacific Railroad reported that it had ejected 
683,457 people from its trains in 1932 (Bernstein, 1970, 325). Every¬ 
where shanty towns built of packing cases and junk sprang up. In 
Oklahoma City the vagrants lived in the river bottom; in Oakland, 
they lived in sewer pipes that a manufacturer could not sell; in New 
York they built shacks in the bed of an abandoned reservoir in 
Central Park and called it “Hoover Valley." 


The Rise of Protest 

Most of the people who were thrown out of work suffered quietly, 
especially at the start of the depression, when official denials helped 
to confuse the unemployed and to make them ashamed of their 
plight. Men and women haunted the employment offices, walked the 
streets, lined up for every job opening, and doubted themselves for 


s See Bernstein, 1970, 327-328; Lynd and Lynd, 147, 544; Bakke, 1940, 17, 115. Several 
depression studies provide extensive evidence of the destructive impact of unemploy¬ 
ment on family relations. See Cooley; Komarovsky; and Stouffer and Lazarsfeld. 




49 The Unemployed Workers' Movement 

not finding work. Families exhausted their savings, borrowed from 
relatives, sold their belongings, blaming themselves and each other 
for losing the struggle to remain self-reliant. But as the depression 
worsened, as the work forces of entire factories were laid off, as whole 
neighborhoods in industrial towns were devastated, and as at least 
some political leaders began to acknowledge that a disaster had 
occurred, attitudes toward what had happened and why, and who 
was to blame, began to change among some of the unemployed. They 
began to define their personal hardship not just as their own indi¬ 
vidual misfortune but as misfortune they shared with many of their 
own kind. And if so many people were in the same trouble, then 
maybe it wasn’t they who were to blame, but “the system.” 4 


MOB LOOTING, MARCHES, AND DEMONSTRATIONS 

One of the earliest expressions of unrest among the unemployed was 
the rise of mob looting. As had happened so often before in history 
during periods of economic crisis, people banded together to demand 
food. By and large, the press refrained from reporting these events 
for fear of creating a contagion effect. In New York bands of thirty or 
forty men regularly descended upon markets, but the chain stores 
refused to call the police, in order to keep the events out of 
the papers. In March 1,100 men waiting on a Salvation Army 
bread line in New York City mobbed two trucks delivering baked 
goods to a nearby hotel. In Henryetta, Oklahoma, 300 jobless 
marched on storekeepers to demand food, insisting they were not 
begging and threatening to use force if necessary (Bernstein, 1970, 
422; Brecher, 144). Indeed, Bernstein concludes that in the early 
years of the depression “organized looting of food was a nation-wide 
phenomenon” (1970, 421-423). 


4 Bakke provides vivid accounts of the demoralization and shame experienced by both 
unemployed American and English workers during this period. It was the sense of 
being different, if one was unemployed, that was so shameful: “And if you can’t find 
any work to do, you have the feeling you’re not human. You’re out of place. You’re so 
different from all the rest of the people around that you think something is wrong with 
you” (1934, 63). But clearly once people realized that by being out of work they were 
just the same as people around them, demoralization could more easily turn to 
indignation. 



50 


Poor People's Movements 

More consciously political demonstrations began as well. By early 
1930, unemployed men and women in New York, Detroit, Cleve¬ 
land, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, and Mil¬ 
waukee were marching under such Communist banners as “Work 
or Wages” and “Fight—Don’t Starve” (Karsh and Garman, 87; Leab, 
300). Len de Caux, a labor journalist, was living in Cleveland at 
the time and described what was happening there: 

Marching columns of unemployed became a familiar sight. Public 
Square saw demonstrations running into tens of thousands. . . . 
The street-scene is etched in memory. It was in the heart of working- 
class Cleveland, during a communist-led demonstration. Police had 
attacked an earlier demonstration. In the street battle, several un¬ 
employed had been injured, and one had since died. In the same 
neighborhood, the Unemployed Councils had called a mass protest, 
a solemn occasion that brought out thousands. The authorities, 
under criticism and on the defensive, withdrew every cop from the 
area, many blocks wide . . . (163-164). 

The crowds did not always stay in their own neighborhoods, and the 
authorities were not always judicious. On February 11, 1930, for 
example, some 2,000 unemployed workers stormed the Cleveland 
City Hall, dispersing only when the police threatened to turn fire 
hoses on them. A few days later the unemployed demonstrated at 
City Hall in Philadelphia, and had to be driven off by the police. 
A week later mounted police with nightsticks dispersed a crowd of 
1,200 jobless men and women in Chicago. On February 26 a crowd 
of 3,000 was broken up by tear gas before the Los Angeles City Hall 
(Bernstein, 1970, 426-427). 

In March the demonstrations became a national event. The Com¬ 
munists declared March 6, 1930, International Unemployment Day, 
and rallies and marches took place in most major cities. Many of the 
demonstrations were orderly, as in San Francisco where the chief of 
police joined the 2,000 marchers and the mayor addressed them, or 
in Chicago where some 4,000 people marched down Halsted and 
Lake Streets, and then dispatched a committee to petition the mayor 
(Lasswell and Blumenstock, 196). But in other places, including 
Washington, D.C., and Seattle, local officials grew alarmed and 
ordered the police to disperse the crowds with tear gas. In Detroit, 
Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Boston, the crowds resisted, and fierce 
battles broke out between the demonstrators and the police (Keeran, 



51 The Unemployed Workers ’ Movement 

72-73; Leab, 306-307). 5 The worst clash occurred in New York City, 6 
an event which was reported by the New York Times : 

The unemployment demonstration staged by the Communist Party 
in Union Square broke up in the worst riot New York has seen 
in recent years when 35,000 people attending the demonstration 
were transformed in a few moments from an orderly, and at times 
a bored, crowd into a fighting mob. The outbreak came after com¬ 
munist leaders, defying warnings and orders of the police, exhorted 
their followers to march on City Hall and demand a hearing from 
Mayor Walker. Hundreds of policemen and detectives, swinging 
night sticks, blackjacks and bare fists, rushed into the crowd, hitting 
out at all with whom they came into contact, chasing many across 
the street and into adjacent thoroughfares and rushing hundreds 
off their feet. . . . From all parts of the scene of battle came the 
screams of women and cries of men, with bloody heads and faces. 

A score of men were sprawled over the square with policemen pum- 
meling them. The pounding continued as the men, and some 
women, sought refuge in flight. 

The demonstration was sufficiently threatening to prod the mayor 
to agree to form a committee to collect funds to be distributed to 
the unemployed. 7 In October 1930 the unemployed gathered again 
in a mass rally at City Hall plaza to demand that the Board of 
Estimate appropriate twenty-five dollars a week for each unemployed 
person. The police again attacked the demonstrators, and two of the 
organizers were injured, but the Board of Estimate appropriated one 
million dollars for relief (Naison, 72-73). 


s “In Detroit, despite police warnings to avoid the area, between 50,000 and 100,000 
people gathered in the streets and on the sidewalks of the downtown district. Police 
Commissioner Harold Emmons mobilized the entire Detroit police force of 3,600. . . . 
For two hours the fighting raged, until in desperation the police ordered city buses and 
street cars to drive through the protesters in order to clear the streets. ... A riot com¬ 
parable to Detroit's disturbance took place in Cleveland after the mayor informed 
10,000 to 25,000 demonstrators that he was powerless to adjust their grievances. A three 
hour riot in Milwaukee led to forty-seven arrests and four injuries” (Keeran, 72-73). 

6 The Daily Worker reported 37 arrested and 130 injured in New York; 45 arrested and 
25 injured in Detroit; 60 arrested and 20 injured in Los Angeles; 12 arrested and 16 
injured in Seattle; 11 arrested and 6 injured in Washington (Rosenzweig, 1976a). 

7 The Communist organizers of the demonstration, however, were charged with “unlaw¬ 
ful assembly” and “creating a public nuisance,” and served six months on Blackwell’s 
Island (Leab, 310). The demonstrations on March 6 also sparked enough concern in 
the Congress to justify the creation of what was to become the House Un-American 
\ctivities Committee (Bernstein, 1970, 427-428). 



52 


Poor People’s Movements 

The demonstrations were branded as riots by the press; it was 
the Communist and Socialist organizers who misnamed them un¬ 
employment demonstrations, said the New York Times (October 17, 
1930, 1). But the unemployed came, whatever the labels of the leaders, 
and despite the castigation of the press. Len de Caux suggests why: 

The communists brought misery out of hiding in the workers’ 
neighborhoods. They paraded it with angry demands. ... In 
hundreds of jobless meetings, I heard no objections to the points 
the communists made, and much applause for them. Sometimes, I’d 
hear a communist speaker say something so bitter and extreme, I’d 
feel embarrassed. Then I’d look around at the unemployed audience 
—shabby clothes, expressions worried and sour. Faces would start 
to glow, heads to nod, hands to clap (162-163). 

For some people at least, distress was turning to indignation, an in¬ 
dignation strong enough to withstand official scorn or state force. 

Communist agitators were helping in that transformation, but the 
unemployed were ready to respond to any leader who articulated 
their grievances. When Father James R. Cox, a Pittsburgh priest 
known as the Mayor of Shantytown, called a rally at Pitt Stadium to 
protest unemployment and demand public works and relief measures, 
some 60,000 people turned out, and 12,000 followed him on to 
Washington where he presented their demands to Hoover (Bernstein, 
1970,432). 8 And later, in the spring of 1932, thousands of unemployed 
veterans and their families descended on Washington, D.C. Their 
songs expressed their disaffection: 

Mellon pulled the whistle 
Hoover rang the bell 
Wall Street gave the signal 
And the country went to Hell 

The veterans had in fact not come in a revolutionary or even in 
a very belligerent spirit. They had come only to plead with the 
Congress for early payment of pensions due them by law in 1945. 
The Congress turned them down, Hoover refused to meet with their 


s It should be noted, because much is often made of it, that two Communist-led hunger 
marches on Washington, D.C., in 1931 and 1932 failed to attract many followers. How¬ 
ever, Herbert Benjamin, who organized the marches, argued in a talk given in April 
1976 in New York City that the marches were not intended to be large, but recruited 
only delegates from local groups, and that the marches themselves were executed with 
“careful military planning.” In any case, there is no denying the successful mobiliza¬ 
tions by the Communists in the big cities. 



53 The Unemployed Workers' Movement 

leaders, and when they still did not leave, he sent the Army to 
rout them. “What a pitiable spectacle/’ said the Washington News, 
“is that of the great American Government, mightiest in the world, 
chasing men, women and children with Army tanks. ... If the 
Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is 
no longer America” (Schlesinger, 1957, 265). 


RENT RIOTS 

The rising anger among the unemployed took other forms than 
street marches and riots. Jobless men and women began to defy 
the local authorities—and the rules upheld by these authorities— 
associated with specific hardships. One such kind of defiance was 
mass resistance to evictions. As unemployment rose, large numbers 
of families in many places could not pay their rents, and the number 
of evictions increased daily. 9 In 1930 and 1931 small bands of people, 
often led by Communists, began to use strong-arm tactics to prevent 
marshals from putting furniture on the street. Sometimes they were 
successful. Even when they were not, physical resistance was the only 
resort for people forced from their homes. The rent riots began on 
the Lower East Side and in Harlem, 10 but quickly spread to other 
parts of the city. The New York Times described an eviction of three 
families in the Bronx on February 2, 1932: 

Probably because of the cold, the crowd numbered only 1,000 
although in unruliness it equalled the throng of 4,000 that stormed 
the police in the first disorder of a similar nature on January 22. 
On Thursday a dozen more families are to be evicted unless they 
pay back rents. 

Inspector Joseph Leonary deployed a force of fifty detectives 
and mounted and foot patrolmen through the street as Marshal 


®In New York City some 186,000 families were served dispossess notices during eight 
months ending in June 1932 (Boyer and Morais, 261). Bernstein reports a Philadelphia 
study published in 1933 that found 63 percent of the white families and 66 percent of 
the black were in rent arrears (1966, 289). A study conducted at about the same time 
in the San Francisco area also found widespread rent defaults (Huntington). In five 
industrial cities in Ohio eviction orders were issued against nearly 100,000 families 
between January 1930 and June 1932 (Boyer and Morais, 261). 

The Daily Worker carried numerous accounts of apparently successful eviction 
resistance actions, beginning in the fall of 1930. 



54 


Poor People’s Movements 

Novick led ten furniture movers into the building. . . . Women 
shrieked from the windows, the different sections of the crowd 
hissed and booed and shouted invectives. Fighting began simultane¬ 
ously in the house and the street. The marshal’s men were rushed 
on the stairs and got to work after the policemen had driven the 
tenants back into their apartments. 

Boyer and Morais claim that such tactics succeeded in restoring 
77,000 evicted families to their homes in New York City (261). 

Chicago was also the scene of frequent “rent riots,” especially in 
the black neighborhoods where unemployment reached catastrophic 
proportions and evictions were frequent. In the brief period from 
August 11 to October 31, 1931 there were 2,185 cases before Renter’s 
Court, 38 percent of which involved blacks (Gosnell, 1967, 321-329). 
Small groups known as “black bugs” marched through the streets 
to mobilize large crowds to reinstall evicted familes, sometimes even 
when the family was not present. 11 Police repression in Chicago was 
so thorough 12 that these actions of necessity were virtually spon¬ 
taneous: 

During the last part of 1930 the Unemployed Councils had estab¬ 
lished headquarters in many of the poorer sections of the city. 
The meeting-halls served as clubhouses where jobless men tired 
of tramping the streets in search of work came to rest and talk 
rather than face the trying tensions of the home. These men, estab¬ 
lishing mutual relations of identification on the basis of their 
common misfortune, began to act together to prevent evictions. 
The demonstrations were entirely unplanned and could not be 
throttled at the source because the men themselves never knew in 
advance when or where they would next demonstrate. Someone 
might come into the hall and tell of a person blocks away who 
was at that moment being evicted. Their indignation aroused, the 
men would march in a group down the street, adding the sympathe¬ 
tic and the curious to their number as they marched, until by the 
time they reached the scene of the eviction, the crowd would have 
grown in size and temper. The furniture of the unfortunate family 
would be replaced and the crowd, delighted with its success, would 
disperse gradually, in small groups (Lasswell and Blumenstock, 1 VO- 
171). 


n For descriptions of the Chicago rent riots see Abbott, Chapter 14; Bernstein, 1970, 428; 
Hofstadter and Wallace, 172-175; Lasswell and Blumenstock, 196-201. 

12 With one exception—a funeral procession—every outdoor demonstration planned by 
the Communists in 1930 in Chicago was cut short by the police (Lasswell and Blumen¬ 
stock, 168-169). 



55 The Unemployed Workers ' Movement 

Horace Cayton describes a Chicago rent riot in which he participated. 
One day in 1931 Cayton was sitting in a restaurant on the South Side 
and saw through the window a long file of black people, marching in 
deadly earnest. He joined them and later described what happened: 

We were met at the street by two squad cars of police who asked 
us where we were going. The black crowd swarmed around the 
officers. . . . No one moved. Everyone simply stood and stared at 
them. One officer lost his head and drew his gun, levelling it at 
the crowd. ... No threats, no murmurs, no disorder; the crowd 
just looked at him. There the officer stood. Just then a siren was 
heard—the whisper went around—the riot squad was coming! . . . 
four cars full of blue-coated officers and a patrol wagon. They 
jumped out before the cars came to a stop and charged down upon 
the crowd. Night sticks and “billies” played a tattoo on black heads. 
“Hold your places!” shouted the woman. “Act like men!” answered 
the crowd. They stood like dumb beasts—no one ran, no one fought 
or offered resistance, just stood, an immovable black mass. 

These tactics frequently culminated in beatings, arrests, and even 
killings, 13 but they also forced relief officials to give out money for 
rent payments (Seymour, December 1937, 14). A rent riot in August 
1931 left three people dead and three policemen injured: “News of 
the riot screamed in the headlines of the evening press. The realiza¬ 
tion of the extent of unrest in the Negro district threw Chicago into 
panic” (Lasswell and Blumenstock, 197). Mayor Anton Cermak re¬ 
sponded by promptly ordering a moratorium on evictions, and some 
of the rioters got work relief. 14 

Karsh and Garman report that in many places the Communists 
organized gas squads to turn the gas back on in people’s houses 
and electric squads to string wires around the meter after it was shut 
off by the local utility (88). In Detroit, it took one hundred police¬ 
men to evict a resisting family, and later two Detroit families who 
protected their premises by shooting the landlord were acquitted by 
sympathetic juries (Bernstein, 1970, 428). 


is The American Civil Liberties Union reported fourteen dead as a result of protests by 
the jobless (cited in Rosenzweig, 1976a). 

n As one official tells the story, the riot **. . . flared up the whole community. I spent 
the next forty-eight hours in the streets down there, trying to quiet things down. I went 
to see Ryerson and the Committee of leading businessmen. ... I said the only way to 
stop this business is to put these evicted men back to work at once. This was on a 
Saturday. They said, 'We don’t have the money.’ I said, 'You better get some.’ By Mon¬ 
day morning, they had the money, and we put three hundred of those men to work 
in the parks that day” (Terkel, 396). 



Poor People’s Movements 


56 


RELIEF INSURGENCY 

There is surely reason to think that it is easier for people to defend 
their homes against the authorities than to demand relief, simply 
because Americans are more likely to believe they have a right 
to their homes than to believe they have a right to handouts, no 
matter how overwhelming the economic disaster that confronts them. 
Most of the unemployed resisted the final degradation of asking for 
relief for as long as they could. A study of those who applied for aid 
in 1932 in San Francisco and Alameda counties, for example, 
reported: 

Nearly two-thirds did not apply for relief until at least a year had 
elapsed after the chief breadwinner had lost his regular employ¬ 
ment, and nearly one-third of these families had managed to get 
along for two years or longer. ... By the time they applied for 
relief, many of these families were in debt to the grocer and the 
landlord; they had used their pitifully small savings; they had 
borrowed sums which though small, could probably never be 
repaid. Finally, they were defeated in their valiant struggle to 
maintain their independence . .. (Huntington, 66, 74). 15 

For many, sheer desperation finally forced violation of the pro¬ 
hibition against the dole. For others, it was more than desperation; 
it was anger. Some people came to believe that if there were no jobs 
—if the factories and offices and workshops turned them away—then 
they had a right to the income they needed to survive anyway. Fired 
by this new indignation, crowds of jobless men and women descended 
on relief offices, cornered and harassed administrators, and even took 
over the offices until their demands were met—until money or goods 
were distributed to them. 16 Lasswell and Blumenstock describe these 
early relief actions in Chicago: 

Hearing that some family had been refused relief or that some 
particularly needy case was being denied immediate attention, 


is Bakke in his survey of New Haven also reported that three-quarters of the unem¬ 
ployed had not applied for relief until after two or more years of unemployment 
(1940, 363). 

is Just how many people participated in unemployed actions remains a matter of 
speculation. Rosenzweig, who has done extensive work on the movement, says that 
“easily two million workers joined in some form of unemployed activity at some point 
in the thirties” but he does not give the evidence for this estimate (1974, 43). 




57 The Unemployed Workers* Movement 

groups would gather and march on the relief stations, demanding 
action. Social workers in many of the offices, having intimate 
knowledge of the misery behind such demands, hesitated to call 
the police. . . . Hence at first the relief offices met the demands 
of the demonstrators, giving Mrs. Jones the food basket which she 
should have had a week earlier. With success, demonstrations of 
this sort increased in number and size. The relief stations found 
themselves unable to deal with this type of mass pressure. For 
example, on the afternoon of August 31, 1931, a group of 400 
persons began to march on the United Charities offices located at 
4500 Prairie Avenue. By the time they reached the relief station, 
the number had grown to fifteen or sixteen hundred. A speaker 
addressed them in front of the station, and the tension grew so 
high that when Joel Hunter, Chief Administrator of the Charities, 
asked for the selection of a committee to present the grievances of 
the crowd, there was a move to storm the station. A police squad 
arrived, and a general riot ensued (171). 

A study published by the American Public Welfare Association 
later in 1937 described similar demonstrations across the nation: 

Relief offices were approached by large committees, numbering ten, 
fifteen, twenty, and sometimes more persons, which demanded im¬ 
mediate audience, without previous appointment and regardless of 
staff members’ schedules. . . . Frequently these large committees 
were buttressed by neighborhood crowds which gathered outside 
the relief office and waited while committees within presented 
“demands” (Seymour, December 1937,15). 

Relief officials, who were accustomed to discretionary giving to 
a meek clientele and were not much governed by any fixed set of 
regulations, usually acquiesced in the face of aggressive protests. 
With each abrasive encounter, officials in local and private charities 
gradually forfeited the discretion to give or withhold aid. Mark 
Naison reports some of the incidents: “I stood in the rain for three 
days and the Home Relief Bureau paid no attention to me,” a woman 
declared at a neighborhood meeting in New York City. “Then I 
found out about the Unemployed Council. . . . We went in there 
as a body and they came across right quick.” “The woman at the 
desk said I was rejected,” another woman added. “I was crying when 
Comrade Minns told me to come to the meeting of the Unemployed 
Council. One week later I got my rent check” (152). 17 


17 Even in dealing with cases of individual hardship, the contrast between the approach 
of the Unemployed Councils and that of private charity agencies was striking. As late as 



58 


Poor People’s Movements 

As the unemployed became more disruptive, even cherished pro¬ 
cedures of investigation and surveillance of recipients were relin¬ 
quished. A news sheet put out by an unemployed group in Port 
Angeles, Washington, exemplified the new spirit: 

"Home Visitors" or "snoopers” are only relief workers on a cash 
basis. They are picked for their ability as snoopers and stool pigeons 
only. They ask you so damn many questions that there is nothing 
personal left to you anyway (cited in Seymour, December 1937, 15). 

As indignation mounted, in other words, some people not only 
defied the prohibition against going on the dole, but some even 
began to defy the apparatus of ritualized humiliation that had made 
that prohibition so effective. And as they did, the movement gathered 
momentum. 

Naison describes the unemployed movement in Harlem (where 
unemployment affected 80 percent of heads of household) during 
this period: 

To force the relief system to function more effectively, the unem¬ 
ployed movement settled on a strategy of stimulating disorder. 
Harlem Council activists organized large groups of jobless workers, 
took them to the local relief station, and demanded that they 
receive aid. If the relief bureau officials refused to see them or 
claimed they were out of aid, the demonstrators camped in the 
bureau offices and remained there until they received aid or were 
removed by the police. If police tried to remove the demonstrators 
or prevent them from entering the bureaus, Council tactics became 
more violent. At one demonstration in late June of 1932, the Amster¬ 
dam News reported a group from the Harlem Council broke down 
the bureau’s doors and "overturned desks and chairs” before the 
police could arrest them. Other demonstrations ended in pitched 
battles between police and Council activists that resulted in bloodied 
heads and numerous arrests (137). 

In Chicago, “spontaneous outbreaks grew in size and frequency, 
and through them the accumulated tensions and effects resulting 
from economic deprivation and from newspaper neglect or criticism 
and police repression became ‘collectivised.’ ” The number of demon- 


December 1932, an official of the Urban League explained how the league dealt with 
relief problems as follows: “We find that we are able to settle about 75 percent of the 
complaints which come to us without even calling the district office. This is done by 
patiently explaining to the complainant the situation as we see it after listening to him” 
(quoted in Prickett, 234). 




59 The Unemployed Workers'Movement 

strations increased, from 408 in 1931 to 566 in 1932 (Lasswell and 
Blumenstock, 172-173). The demonstrations were also becoming 
more massive and well-organized. On January 11, 1932, simultaneous 
demonstrations were held at all the relief stations of Chicago. 18 Later 
that year, some 5,000 men who had been forced to take refuge in 
municipal lodging houses marched on relief headquarters to demand 
three meals a day, free medical attention, tobacco twice a week, the 
right to hold Council meetings in the lodging houses, and the 
assurance of no discrimination against Unemployed Council mem¬ 
bers. Their demands were granted. Later in 1932, when relief funds 
were cut 50 percent by a financially strangled city administration, 
some 25,000 of the unemployed marched again, this time through 
the Chicago Loop in a cold, driving rain. The authorities quickly 
managed to borrow funds from the Reconstruction Finance Corpora¬ 
tion, and the cut was rescinded. 

In Detroit hundreds of people organized by the Unemployed 
Councils gathered at City Hall in August 1931 to demand better 
food and better treatment from the police at the municipal lodging 
houses. Just a few months later, the Young Communist League led 
a march of several thousand on one of the Briggs auto plants to 
demand jobs and unemployment insurance (Keeran, 77). Then in 
March 1932, after the severe winter, unemployed workers in Detroit 
who had been assembled by Communist organizers to march on 
the Ford River Rouge plant were fired on by Dearborn police. Four 
of the marchers were killed, many more were wounded. The press 
was divided: the Detroit Mirror savagely attacked the “riotous’' 
marchers, but the Detroit Times accused the police of having 
“changed an orderly demonstration into a riot with death and blood¬ 
shed as its toll” (Keeran, 82-83; Prickett, 119). Two days later, some 
sixty thousand Detroit workers marched behind the coffins to the 
tune of the Internationale. 

In Atlanta in June 1932 city and county authorities decided to 
drop 23,000 families from the relief rolls, claiming there were no 
funds. To maintain a degree of order in the face of this decision, 
local authorities proceeded to arrest hundreds of farm workers (who 
had come to Atlanta in search of work) on charges of vagrancy, in 
order to send them back to the countryside. But when a thousand of 


is Lasswell and Blumenstock provide a blow-by-blow account of this and other 
demonstrations, many of which resulted in arrests, injuries, and killings (204-210). 



60 


Poor People’s Movements 

the unemployed rallied at the courthouse, the order to cut the 
families was rescinded, and additional money was appropriated for 
relief (Herndon, 188-192). 19 In St. Louis 3,000 of the jobless marched 
and forced the passage at City Hall of two relief bills (Boyer and 
Morais, 263). Each such protest that succeeded in getting people 
money added morale and momentum to the movement, and further 
undermined the doctrine that being “on the county” was a con¬ 
fession of personal failure, a badge of shame. 


Local Fiscal Breakdown 

The number of jobless continued to rise. In the big industrial cities, 
where unemployment was especially severe, the unemployed some¬ 
times comprised voting majorities. Faced with mounting protests, 
local officials could not remain indifferent. Clearly the private 
agencies which had in many places handled whatever relief was 
given could not meet the surging demand, and various ad hoc 
arrangements were quickly invented, often with the cooperation of 
local businessmen and philanthropists. Committees were set up, 
local citizens were exhorted to contribute to charity drives, and in 
some places city employees found their wages reduced for contribu¬ 
tions to the relief fund. By these methods, expenditures for relief 
rose from $71 million in 1929 to $171 million in 1931 (Chandler, 
192). 

But this amount of relief in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, 
and Philadelphia barely scratched the surface of the need. The city 
manager of Cincinnati reported on the relief methods used there at 
the end of 1931, when about one-quarter of the city's workers were 
unemployed, and another quarter worked only part-time: 

Relief is given to a family one week and then they are pushed off 
for a week in the hope that somehow or other the breadwinner may 
find some kind of work. . . . We are paying no rent at all. That, 
of course, is a very difficult problem because we are continually 
having evictions, and social workers . . . are hard put to find places 


i® Subsequently Angelo Herndon, one of the Communist organizers of the Atlanta 
demonstration, was indicted and convicted for inciting insurrection under a century-old 
Georgia statute. His sentence to a twenty-year term by the Georgia courts was finally 
overturned by the Supreme Court in 1937. 



61 The Unemployed Workers' Movement 

for people whose furniture has been put out on the streets (quoted 
in Chandler, 43). 

In New York City, where the charter of 1898 prohibited “outdoor” 
relief as distinct from relief in workhouses or poor houses, disrup¬ 
tions by the unemployed had led to the creation of an arrangement 
whereby the police precincts distributed direct relief to the most 
destitute from funds contributed by city employees. In 1931, on 
Governor Roosevelt’s initiative, New York State established an 
emergency program which supplemented local relief funds with an 
initial outlay of $20 million. Even so, by 1932, the lucky among the 
unemployed in New York City were receiving an average grant of 
$2.39 per week, and only one-quarter were getting that (Schlesinger, 
1957, 253). Testimony before the Senate Committee on Manufactures 
in the summer of 1932 reported that 20,000 children in New York 
had been placed in institutions because parents could not provide 
for them. 

In Chicago in October 1931 40 percent of the work force was 
unemployed, but help was being given only to the completely desti¬ 
tute. A local official reported: 

In the city of Chicago there are 1,000 men eating in the breadlines 
food that costs 4 1/ 2 cents a day, and these men are from the so-called 
Gold Coast of Chicago. These resources are about to end, and they 
are confronted with one meal a day within, say 30 days after the 
city funds will become exhausted (quoted in Chandler, 45). 

Since Chicago was a railway hub, officials also had to deal with large 
numbers of transients, some of whom lived in a shanty town at the 
foot of Randolph Street, scavenging garbage for a living. Others were 
crowded in asylums and poor houses. Bernstein reports that the 
Oak Forest poor house, having filled' its corridors, turned away 
19,000 people in 1931 (1970, 297-298). By June 1932, Mayor Cermak 
told a House committee that if the federal government didn’t send 
$150 million for relief immediately, they should be prepared to 
send troops later. And Chicago’s leading industrialists and bankers 
joined in an appeal to Hoover for federal relief funds (Bernstein, 
1970, 467). 

In Philadelphia, public relief had been abolished in 1879, 20 and 


20 The Pennsylvania constitution explicitly forbade appropriations for “charitable 
purposes” but eventually the pressure was so great that the legislature made an appro¬ 
priation anyway under the “general welfare” clause (Bernstein, 1970, 459). 



62 


Poor People's Movements 

so it fell to a committee of leading philanthropists and businessmen 
to deal with the problem. They inaugurated a diversified program 
of work relief, shelters, and loans, but their efforts were dwarfed by 
the need. Some 250,000 were out of work in Philadelphia. “We have 
unemployment in every third house,” the executive director of the 
Philadelphia Children’s Bureau told the Senate Subcommittee on 
Manufactures. “It is almost like the visitation of death to the house¬ 
holds of the Egyptians at the time of the escape of the Jews from 
Egypt” (Bernstein, 1970, 299-300). 

In Detroit, Frank Murphy had won the mayoralty in 1930 with a 
campaign that pledged aid to the unemployed, and a public relief 
program was established with the result that the costs of relief rose 
from $116,000 in February 1929 to $1,582,000 two years later. But 
even so, Detroit provided only $3.60 for two adults per week, and 
a study in 1931 of those dropped from the rolls showed that average 
total income per person was $1.56 a week. Not surprisingly. Mayor 
Murphy reversed his belief in local responsibility, and told the 
Senate Manufactures Subcommittee that there ought to be federal 
help. 

These cities were actually the more liberal ones. In most places, 
people got only a little food: Baltimore, for example, provided an 
average weekly relief allotment of eighty cents in commodities 
(Greenstein). In Atlanta, white recipients received sixty cents a 
week, while blacks got less, when they got anything at all (Herndon, 
188). Fortune summed up local relief efforts in the fall of 1931: 

The theory was that private charitable organizations and semi¬ 
public welfare groups . . . were capable of caring for the casualties 
of a world wide economic disaster. And the theory in application 
meant that social agencies manned for the service of a few hundred 
families, and city shelters set up to house and feed a handful of 
homeless men, were compelled by the brutal necessities of hunger 
to care for hundreds of thousands of families and whole armies 
of the displaced and jobless. . . . The result was the picture now 
presented in city after city . . . heterogeneous groups of official and 
unofficial relief agencies struggling under the earnest and untrained 
leadership of the local men of affairs against an inertia of misery 
and suffering and want they are powerless to overcome (cited in 
Bernstein, 1970, 301). 

In November 1932 a distinguished group of California citizens 
serving on the State Unemployment Commission published a report 
of its findings: 



63 The Unemployed Workers ' Movement 

Unemployment and loss of income have ravaged numerous homes. 

It has broken the spirits of their members, undermined their health, 
robbed them of self-respect, destroyed their efficiency and employa¬ 
bility. . . . Many households have been dissolved; little children 
parcelled out to friends, relatives or charitable homes; husbands 
and wives, parents and children separated, temporarily or perma¬ 
nently. Homes in which life savings were invested and hopes bound 
up have been lost never to be recovered. Men, young and old, 
have taken to the road . . . the army of homeless grows alarm¬ 
ingly. . . . Precarious ways of existing, questionable methods of 
“getting by” rapidly develop (cited in Bernstein, 1970, 321). 

And in 1932 the New York Evening Graphic ran a series on starva¬ 
tion cases that year. The depression was no longer being denied. 

However pathetic local relief programs were compared to the 
scale of the need, the cost of even that puny effort had brought many 
cities close to bankruptcy, and other municipal services were taking 
the brunt of the fiscal squeeze. A Detroit official reported that 
essential public services had been reduced “beyond the minimum 
point absolutely essential to the health and safety of the city,” and 
this despite the fact that municipal salaries had been sharply cut. 
Chicago (whose finances had been in a shambles even before the 
depression) owed its school teachers $20 million dollars in back pay 
(Hopkins, 92-93). Boston had not paid its police for months (Bird, 
108). 

With local disturbances increasing, and local finances on the verge 
of collapse, other urban states followed New York’s example. New 
Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin provided emergency out¬ 
lays of relief funds, and other states began to underwrite municipal 
borrowing for relief. As a result of state and local efforts, total ex¬ 
penditures for relief rose by another $71 million between 1931 and 
1932, to reach a total of $317 million. This amount of relief provided 
less than $27 that year for each of the 12 million unemployed. Even 
so, the effort was taking a heavy toll from local governments; to meet 
relief debts in the face of sharply declining tax revenues, spending 
on other programs fell by $966 million between 1931 and 1932. 
Increasingly, local governments turned to borrowing, but they found 
fewer purchasers for their bonds, partly because many municipalities 
were no longer credit-worthy. On April 15 Survey magazine pub¬ 
lished reports from thirty-seven large cities and concluded that “the 
industrial cities of the Middle West and the large cities of Pennsyl¬ 
vania are in desperate plight... . Complete breakdown is imminent.'' 



Poor People's Movements 64 

By early 1933 nearly one thousand local governments had defaulted 
on their debts (Chandler, 48-50). 

In February 1932, as part of a campaign for his bill to provide 
federal loans for unemployment relief, Senator La Follette sent out 
a questionnaire to mayors all over the country asking about current 
numbers of people on relief, anticipated increases, the amounts of 
relief aid being given, whether the city was in a position to float 
bond issues to meet relief needs, and whether the mayors favored 
federal appropriations to “aid in providing more adequate relief for 
the needy or in lessening the burden on local taxpayers.” In their 
replies, the mayors described widespread distress and clamored for 
federal aid. Not only were they administering relief on a starvation 
basis, but virtually every municipality claimed to be close to bank¬ 
ruptcy and faced the prospect of having to cut off relief altogether. 21 

Unable to resist the political pressures of the unemployed, local 
elites had brought their cities to the brink of fiscal collapse. But even 
so, city budgets could not handle the demand for relief, and so the 
pressure was not abated, but worsened as unemployment rose. Driven 
by the protests of the masses of unemployed and the threat of financial 
ruin, mayors of the biggest cities of the United States, joined by 
business and banking leaders, had become lobbyists for the poor. 


Electoral Instability and Federal Response 

By November 1932 the political unrest that had spurred local leaders 
to try to respond to the unemployed spread upward to produce a 
national political disturbance—the electoral upheaval of 1932. In 
the avalanche of new legislation that followed, concessions were 
made to each group in a volatile constituency. What the unemployed 
got was federal relief. 


2i Senator La Follette had these replies read into the Congressional Record, 1932, 3099- 
3260. La Follette was head of the Senate Subcommittee on Manufactures that held 
hearings on proposals for federal relief early in 1932. The testimony at these hearings 
provided overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of unemployment. Never¬ 
theless, the bill that emerged from the committee was defeated by a coalition of 
Republicans and conservative Democrats. Later that year, as the pressure mounted. 
Congress finally authorized federal loans to the states for relief through the Reconstruc¬ 
tion Finance Corporation. Hoover reluctantly supported the measure as not interfering 
with private and local responsibilities for relief. In a way, he was right; the loans that 
resulted were too minuscule to be called interference. 




65 The Unemployed Workers* Movement 

The Republican Party had been in power since the toppling of 
the Wilson Administration in the election of 1920, when Harding 
carried every major nonsouthern city. With eastern businessmen 
at the helm, the Republicans ruled securely thereafter, receiving 
substantial majorities in each election until 1930, their strength con¬ 
centrated particularly in the urban North. Hoover had won the 
presidency with a majority of 6.5 million votes. 

As for the Democratic Party, after the debacle of 1924 during 
which the agrarian wing had been defeated, it too had come firmly 
under the control of eastern conservatives, businessmen like Bernard 
Baruch and John J. Raskob, and machine politicians like Alfred E. 
Smith. But the depression created the shifting currents that would 
bring new leaders to the forefront of the Democratic Party, and 
would then force the massive realignment of voters that brought 
these leaders to national power. The realignment was first signaled 
in the election of 1928 when big city wage earners began to switch 
to the Democratic Party and the candidacy of A1 Smith. 22 The shift 
of urban working-class voters became more evident as the depression 
worsened; the Republicans suffered reversals in the congressional 
elections of 1930. But it was the presidential election of 1932 that 
produced one of the most sweeping political realignments in Ameri¬ 
can history, and it was the election of 1936 that confirmed it. 

The man who rose to power through these dislocations was, of 
course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt; he won the Democratic nomina¬ 
tion from a divided and uncertain Democratic Party on the fourth 
ballot, and then went on to campaign by making promises to every¬ 
one who would listen. 23 What working people listened to were the 
promises to “build from the bottom up and not from the top down, 
that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of 
the economic pyramid” (Roosevelt, 159-206, 625). Roosevelt won 
with a plurality of almost seven million votes, capturing the largest 
electoral majority since 1864, and sweeping in an overwhelmingly 


22 in some cities—Boston, New York, Milwaukee, and San Francisco—the shift in 1928 
was dramatic; the Democratic percentage of the vote doubled in these places (Bernstein, 
1970, 78-79). 

23 Raymond Moley writes of the campaign as follows: “I was charged in 1932 with 
mobilizing personnel and ideas to promote the presidential ambitions of Governor 
Roosevelt. I welcomed all points of view, planners, trustbusters, and money wizards. I 
expanded the so-called Brain Trust very considerably and maintained contact with a 
great variety of people from Bernard Baruch to Huey Long. The task was to win an 
election in an electorate comprising many ideologies, and mostly no, ideology. The issue 
was recovery, and the therapy used was a combination of many prescriptions” (559-560). 




66 


Poor People’s Movements 

Democratic Congress. And much of Roosevelt’s majority was con¬ 
centrated in the big cities of the country, where unemployment and 
hardship were also concentrated. Economic catastrophe had resulted 
in a mass rejection of the party in power. 

In the interim between the election and Roosevelt’s inauguration, 
the index of industrial production sank to its lowest point ever, and 
the number of unemployed was increasing at the rate of about 
200,000 a month (Lescohier and Brandeis, 163), to reach at least 12 
million by March 1933. The clamor for federal relief was virtually 
irresistible. A Social Science Research Council Bulletin character¬ 
ized the situation this way: 

By the time the new federal administration came into power in 
1933, the pressure for more money had become so nearly unanimous 
that it was politically desirable for congressmen and senators to 
favor large appropriations for relief; candidates were elected often 
on a platform which predicated adequate relief appropriations by 
Congress (White and White, 84). 

In a message to Congress three weeks after the inauguration, 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for a Civilian Conservation Corps, 
a public works program, and a massive program of federal emer¬ 
gency relief. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs at 
subsistence wages for a mere 250,000 men. The Public Works Ad¬ 
ministration was slow in getting started, and in any case it was 
designed not so much to provide jobs for the unemployed as to 
stimulate the economy, so that most of the jobs went to skilled 
workers. By contrast the Federal Emergency Relief Act, drawn up 
by Senators Edward P. Costigan, Robert F. Wagner, and Robert N. 
La Follette, Jr., allocated $500 million for immediate grants to the 
states for relief of the unemployed, half of which was to be spent 
on a matching basis. The act was signed on May 12, Harry Hopkins 
was sworn in as administrator on May 22, and by the evening of that 
day, he made the first grants to the states. By early June, forty-five 
states had received federal grants for relief, and total expenditures 
on relief rose to $794 million in 1933, to $1,489 million in 1934, and 
to $1,834 million in 1935 (Brown, 204). When the program was ter¬ 
minated in June 1936 the federal government had spent $3 billion 
as its share of relief expenditures. 24 


24 On May 23, the day after he took office, Hopkins notified the states that the federal 
government would make grants-in-aid equal to one-third of the relief expenditure in 



67 The Unemployed Workers* Movement 

It had taken protest and the ensuing fiscal and electoral disturb¬ 
ances to produce federal relief legislation, and it took continued 
protest to get the legislation implemented. By 1934 many people had 
been without work a long time—an estimated 6 million for more 
than a year (Karsh and Garman, 86). And during 1933, 1934, and 
1935, groups of the unemployed continued to agitate, and were at 
least partly responsible for the fact that many states and localities 
participated in federal emergency relief programs at all. In August 
1933, when state appropriations were needed in Ohio, 7,000 jobless 
marched on the state capitol (Rosenzweig, 1975, 58). In Colorado, 
when the federal relief funds were discontinued in the winter of 1934 
because the state had repeatedly failed to appropriate its share of 
costs, mobs of the unemployed rioted in relief centers, looted food 
stores, and stormed the state legislature, driving the frightened 
senators from the chamber. Two weeks later, the General Assembly 
sent a relief bill to the governor, and federal funding was resumed 
(Cross). An attempt in Chicago to cut food allowances by 10 percent 
in November 1934 led to a large demonstration by the unemployed, 
and the city council restored that cut. In the spring of 1935 the 
federal government withheld relief after Illinois failed to provide its 
share of funding. When relief offices closed down, the unemployed 
marched and demonstrated in Chicago and Springfield until the 
state legislature appropriated funds. Relief was cut in Kansas City, 
Kansas, later that year and 2,000 of the unemployed assembled in 
front of the courthouse where they remained and prayed and sang 
hymns until a new relief appropriation was voted (Gilpin). 

These were only the publicized protests. A survey conducted in 
New York City revealed that almost all of the forty-two district relief 
administrators in New York City reported frequent dealings with 
unemployed groups, most of them led by Communists. These groups 
were disruptive—shouting, picketing, refusing to leave the relief 
offices—and the groups frequently won their demands. Five of the 
relief offices were observed continuously over a thirty-day period 
during which 196 demands by unemployed groups were recorded, of 
which 107 were granted (Brophy and Hallowitz, 63-65). 

By the winter of 1934 20 million people were on the dole, and 


the state during the first quarter of the year. But this ratio was disregarded as time 
went on, and the proportion of relief paid by the federal government increased until it 
was as much as three-quarters of the relief expenditure in some states (White and 
White, 82). 



68 


Poor People’s Movements 

monthly grant levels had risen from an average of $15.15 per family 
in May 1938 to an average of $24.53 in May 1934, and to $29.33 in 
May 1935. Harry Hopkins explained the new government posture 
toward the unemployed: 

For a long time those who did not require relief entertained the 
illusion that those being aided were in need through some fault 
of their own. It is now pretty clear in the national mind that the 
unemployed are a cross-section of the workers, the finest people in 
the land (Kurzman, 85). 


From Disruption to Organization 

From the onset of the depression, the potential for unrest among the 
unemployed attracted organizers and activists from the left. Their 
approaches to work with the unemployed varied. But they all de¬ 
plored the loose and chaotic character of the movement, and they 
all strove to build organization. 

The Communists were first in the field—indeed, they had been 
in the field as early as 1921, trying to organize the unemployed into 
“Councils of Action,” but without much success. In 1929 they began 
a new campaign to form “Unemployed Councils.” 25 During the 
winter of 1929-1930, Communist organizers worked vigorously, on 
the breadlines, in the flop houses, among the men waiting at factory 
gates, and in the relief offices. By mid-1930 the unemployed had 
become the chief focus of party activity. The party’s theoretical 
journal. The Communist , asserted that those out of work were “the 
tactical key to the present state of the class struggle” (cited in 
Rosenzweig, 1976a). 

During this early period, Communist activists concentrated on 
direct action rather than on organization, and the actions they led 
in the streets and in the relief offices were generally more militant 
and disruptive than those of other unemployed groups. Communists, 
many of whom were unemployed workers, 26 seized upon every griev- 


25 The Unemployed Councils were officially launched under that name at a National 
Conference of the Unemployed in Chicago on July 4, 1930 (Bernstein, 1970, 428). The 
Councils were renamed Unemployment Councils in 1934. 

26 A high proportion of party members were unemployed during the early depression 
years, and relatively few of them were in basic industry. For this reason, much of the 
party’s emphasis at this stage was on the work of street nuclei among the unemployed. 
That was to change later in the depression. 



69 The Unemployed Workers’ Movement 

ance as an opportunity for inciting mass actions, and channeled their 
formidable self-discipline and energy into the extensive pamphleteer¬ 
ing and agitation that helped bring the unemployed together, and 
helped raise the pitch of anger to defiance. Moreover, Communists 
themselves often took the lead in confrontations with police; com¬ 
rades were exhorted to stand firm and defend other unemployed 
workers when the police attacked, as they often did (Seymour, 
August 1937, 9-11; Leab, 300-303; Lasswell and Blumenstock, 
165-213). 

At this stage, there were few membership meetings, little formal 
structure within each group, and very little effort to establish formal 
linkages among the different groups. The Councils sprang alive at 
mass meetings and demonstrations; in between, only a cadre group 
constituted the organization. “But because of the temper of the 
times,” says Leab, “this hard core managed to bring out ever- 
increasing numbers of people for the various protest demonstrations” 
(304). 

Early in the depression most Socialists had been opposed to organ¬ 
izing the unemployed. Instead, the National Executive Committee 
of the Socialist Party had, in May 1929, urged the creation of Emer¬ 
gency Conferences on Unemployment that would lobby for the 
Socialist program of old age benefits, unemployment insurance, and 
the abolition of child labor. Little came of the Emergency Confer¬ 
ences, but groups of Socialists in some localities, many of them 
associated with the League for Industrial Democracy, began to 
organize committees or unions of the unemployed despite the ab¬ 
sence of a national mandate. They used grievance procedures and 
mass pressure tactics not very different from the Communist un¬ 
employed groups. 27 The most successful of these was the Chicago 
Workers’ Committee on Unemployment which was credited with 
raising Cook County relief payments to one of the highest in the 
nation (Rosenzweig, 1974, 12). By February 1932, prodded by the 
success of the Communist Unemployed Councils, and by the local 
Socialist-led organizations that had already emerged, the National 
Executive Committee of the Socialist Party finally endorsed direct 
organizing of the unemployed (Rosenzweig, 1974, 14), with the result 


27 There is some evidence that the Socialist groups tended to attract a more middle- 
class constituency than the Communists, perhaps because of their emphasis on educa¬ 
tional programs and their more conservative tactics, and perhaps because they lacked 
the Communists' zeal in mobilizing the working class. 



70 


Poor People's Movements 

that Socialists in other places, most importantly in New York and 
Baltimore, began organizing on the model of the Chicago Workers' 
Committee. These groups later initiated the Workers' Alliance of 
America, the culmination of the organizational efforts among the 
unemployed. 

Other radicals were also active, many of them affiliated with the 
Conference for Progressive Labor Action formed in May 1929 by 
Socialists and trade unionists who were opposed both to the con¬ 
servative leadership of the AFL and to the dual union approach of 
the Communist Trade Union Unity League. The CPLA began as 
a propaganda and education organization but by 1931 it began to 
move to the left and A. J. Muste, who had run the Brookwood Labor 
College in the 1920s, emerged as the leading figure, with a program 
to build local organizations of the unemployed. The Muste groups, 
usually called Unemployed Leagues, flourished particularly in the 
rural areas and small towns of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, North 
Carolina, and Pennsylvania, where the approach taken by the Muste 
radicals, at least at the beginning, was nondoctrinaire and oriented 
toward the immediate needs of the unemployed. The Seattle Un¬ 
employment League, a kind of model for many of these efforts 
(although it was not actually affiliated with the CPLA), was a par¬ 
ticular success, at least briefly. It claimed 12,000 members in Seattle 
itself by the end of 1931 and a statewide membership of 80,000 by 
the end of 1932. At first the Seattle group emphasized barter, working 
for farmers in exchange for produce. But when the harvest season 
of 1931 was over, and self-help came to an end, the league turned to 
the city for help. The city council, uneasy about the growing num¬ 
bers of league supporters, voted an appropriation of half a million 
dollars for relief, and turned the fund over to the league to ad¬ 
minister. During the spring elections of 1932, when an estimated 
one-third of Seattle’s voters were league members, the league sup¬ 
ported a slate headed by John F. Dore, who campaigned with talk of 
taking huge fortunes away “from those who stole them from the 
American workers,’’ and won with the largest plurality in Seattle 
history. Once in office, however, Dore took the administration of 
relief away from the league and threatened to use machine guns on 
the unemployed demonstrations, earning himself the name “Revolv¬ 
ing Dore” (Bernstein, 1970, 416-418). 

Many of the Unemployed Leagues, like the Seattle League, did not 
last long as self-help efforts, if only because self-help programs could 
not cope with extensive and lasting unemployment. By 1933 the 



71 The Unemployed Workers’ Movement 

leagues became more political and abrasive in outlook and tactics, 
joining in the general demand for public relief. Some fell under 
the leadership of the Communists, and later some of the leaders of 
the leagues, Louis Budenz among them, joined the Communist Party. 

Other groups appeared in many towns, sometimes under auspices 
which had nothing to do with radical politics. Local politicians, 
for example, set up clubs in their wards to handle relief grievances 
on behalf of individual constituents, particularly before elections, 28 
and in many rural or partially rural areas, groups organized around 
self-help and barter programs. 29 In Dayton, Ralph Borsodi, a utopian 
thinker who believed in a return to the land, was engaged by the 
Council of Social Agencies to organize groups that undertook to 
produce their own goods (Bernstein, 1970, 420). Arthur Moyer, the 
president of Antioch College, established the Midwest Exchange, 
Inc., which encouraged self-help and barter among independent 
groups (Glick, 13-14). In Harlem, self-help took the form of food 
collections and rent parties often organized by the churches or by 
the disciples of Father Divine. 30 

In some places, particularly in the coal regions where unemploy¬ 
ment was endemic, trade unions helped and even joined with the 
unemployed. Locals of the United Mine Workers led two hunger 
marches in Charleston, West Virginia, for example, and joined with 
the Unemployed Council in Gallup, New Mexico, in leading mass 
resistance against evictions of unemployed miners from homes built 
on land owned by mining companies. In Pennsylvania, some locals 
of the UMW affiliated with and gave financial support to the un¬ 
employed groups (Seymour, December 1937, 6). Elsewhere, unem¬ 
ployed groups occasionally provided support for striking workers. In 
the Toledo Auto-Lite strike and the Milwaukee Streetcar strike in 


28 Gosnell describes such ward activity in Chicago (1937). 

29 Clark Kerr provides an exhaustive description of these self-help groups, whose active 
membership he estimates at 75,000 in 1932. 

80 in Harlem even the Unemployed Councils undertook food collections to meet the 
immediate needs of the destitute (Daily Worker, April 24, 1931). In general, however, 
the more radical leaders of the unemployed scorned the self-help approach, as is 
suggested by an article entitled “Organized Looking into Garbage Cans” in the March 
1st, 1933, issue of the Detroit Hunger Fighter, a news sheet of the Detroit Unemployed 
Council: “The procedure is to go to all kinds of food establishments and trade the labor 
of unemployed workers for unsaleable food, to gather old clothing, etc., as a means of 
lightening the burden of maintaining the unemployed for the bosses and evading the 
issue of struggle ... 55 percent of the population cannot live on what the other 45 
percent throws away. . .. ** 



72 


Poor People’s Movements 

1934, it was the support of thousands of the unemployed that finally 
broke employer resistance. And in Minneapolis, unemployed workers 
were included in the militant local 574 of the Teamsters (Glick, 13). 
By and large, however, the trade unions avoided the unemployed, 
who were dropped from the union membership rolls as their dues 
lapsed. 31 Subsequently William Green and John L. Lewis sent 
messages of greetings to meetings of the unemployed (Seymour, 
December 1937, 10), but the CIO refused to permit the request 
of the organization of the unemployed to affiliate. 

Because of the variegated character of the unemployed movement, 
membership cannot be accurately estimated, and in any case it 
probably fluctuated widely. People were attracted by the chances of 
getting relief, and many dropped out once the needed aid was 
received. Until February 1934 the Unemployed Councils did not 
have either dues or members; adherents were simply called sup¬ 
porters (Seymour, August 1937, 11-13). Still, if any gauge is pro¬ 
vided by the groups’ own claims, the numbers were impressive for a 
grassroots organization. By 1933 the Ohio Unemployed League 
claimed a membership of 100,000 distributed among 187 locals 
throughout the state; the Pennsylvania Unemployed League in 1935 
claimed 25,000 members in twelve counties; the Pennsylvania Secur¬ 
ity League reported some 70,000 members (Seymour, December 
1937); the Pittsburgh Unemployed Citizens’ League claimed 50,000 
dues-paying members in fifty locals (Karsh and Garman, 92). In 
Chicago the Unemployed Councils alone claimed a membership of 
22,000 in forty-five local branches (Karsh and Garman, 90) while 
the Socialist-led groups had organized 25,000 jobless by mid-1932 
(Rosenzweig, 1976a). 


THE FORMATION OF A NATIONAL ORGANIZATION 

The movement of the unemployed had originated in local com¬ 
munities, in sporadic street demonstrations, in rent riots, and in 
the disruption of relief centers. Many of the local organizations were 
loosely structured, held together more by the periodic demonstrations 


si Consistent with its historic emphasis on voluntarism, the AFL had opposed govern¬ 
ment measures to aid the unemployed until mid-1932, by which time its ranks had 
broken on the issue, and even some employers were pressing the federation to reverse 
itself. 



73 The Unemployed Workers’ Movement 

than by regular and formal affiliations; they gathered momentum 
from direct action victories which yielded money or food or a halt 
to evictions. But most of the radical leaders of the different groups 
felt that the looseness of these local groups was a drawback. As 
early as November 1930 the Communist Party political committee 
criticized the absence of “organizational crystallization” in the Un¬ 
employed Councils, and a party official complained that “despite 
millions of leaflets and hundreds of meetings, not to speak of the 
half dozen demonstrations in every city, organized unemployed 
councils are almost nonexistent” (Rosenzweig, 1976b, 42). 32 

However bitterly the Communists, the Socialists, and the Musteites 
disagreed about issues of international socialism, they shared the 
view that the victories won by the unemployed in the early depres¬ 
sion were mere handouts. A significant political movement capable 
of winning major victories depended, they thought, on firmly struc¬ 
tured local and state organizations knit together in a national body 
and with a national program. 33 Instead of disparate local groups dis¬ 
rupting relief offices or leading marches on mayors for handouts, a 
nationwide poor people’s organization should be formed, an organi¬ 
zation representing such massive voting numbers as to compel the 
Congress to enact more fundamental economic reforms. The coming 
of the New Deal, with a more sympathetic president and Congress, 
of course, encouraged this approach, for the time seemed propitious 
to achieve far-reaching change through the electoral system. 

Moreover, a major shift in Comintern policy in 1935 (prompted 
by belated realization of the seriousness of the fascist threat and the 
menace it posed to world communism) encouraged this emphasis on 
organization and electoral strategies among the Communists, who 
had led the most militant and disruptive of the unemployed groups. 34 


32 Herbert Benjamin, leader of the Unemployed Councils, commented later on directives 
by the party leadership to overcome these failings that “down below people weren’t 
concerned . . . [They were] just concerned with finding any means they could of acting” 
(quoted in Rosenzweig, 1976b, 40). 

33 David Lasser, a Socialist and leader of a New York unemployed group who later be¬ 
came head of the Workers’ Alliance, argued in 1934 that the demands of the unem¬ 
ployed had become national in scope, and that the unemployed themselves had matured 
so that they would not be satisfied with short run concessions, but wanted a reordering 
of society (New Leader, December 12, 1934, 1). 

34 The widely held assumption that the policies of the American Communist Party were 
simply reflexive responses to the dictates of the International has recently been disputed 
by a number of young historians who argue that the Popular Front was, at least in part, 
an authentic—if perhaps mistaken—response of American Communists to domestic 
political developments. See for example Buhle, Keeran, and Prickett. 



74 


Poor People’s Movements 

The “Popular Front” line called upon Communists to seek alliances 
with the liberal and socialist groups they had previously denounced 
as “social fascists.” This quite clearly meant seeking alliances within 
the New Deal coalition and with the New Deal itself. 35 

In fact, there were attempts to form a national organization almost 
from the start. Stimulated by the successful demonstrations of March 
6, 1930, the Communists held a meeting in New York City at the 
end of March, reportedly drawing together 215 delegates from 
thirteen states, and calling for the formation of an autonomous 
national unemployment organization. 36 In July a larger meeting 
attracting 1,320 delegates was held in Chicago to declare the forma¬ 
tion of the Unemployed Councils of the U.S.A. A platform calling 
for federal unemployment insurance and federal appropriations for 
relief was adopted, and a formal structure describing the relation¬ 
ship between local, city, county, state, and national groups was elab¬ 
orated. By 1934 the Unemployed Councils also adopted a written 
constitution (Leab, 308-311). Finally the shift in Comintern policy 
in 1935 set the stage not only for the development of an organization, 
but for the development of an organization that would embrace all 
of the unemployed groups. 

In the fall of 1932, prompted by the upcoming election, the 
Socialists had also taken steps toward the development of a national 
organization. 37 The Chicago Workers Committee called a meeting of 
“all Unemployed Leagues that we know of except the Communist 
Party’s ‘Unemployed Councils’ ” (Seymour, December 1937, 7). The 
result was the formation of the Federation of Unemployed Workers 
Leagues of America, which called on the incoming president and 
the Congress to enact legislation for direct relief, public works and 
slum clearance, unemployment and old-age insurance, a shorter work 
day, and the prohibition of child labor. The federation itself was 
shortlived, but the conviction that a nationwide organization would 


35 Earl Browder later recalled that the party had begun working with New Deal relief 
agencies in 1935 (Buhle, 231). 

36 Prior to this, the Unemployed Councils were considered part of the Trade Union 
Unity League but this affiliation did not much affect the strictly local activities of the 
early groups (Seymour, December 1937, 3). 

37 Aside from this conference activity, Norman Thomas’ campaign for the presidency 
in 1932 brought a halt to whatever direct organizing of the jobless the Socialists were 
doing. The election campaign was apparently considered more important (Rosenzweig, 
1974,15). 




75 The Unemployed Workers’ Movement 

be a powerful force persisted, and the Socialist groups moved to 
consolidate into state federations during 1934. 

Meanwhile, in July 1933, 800 delegates from thirteen states showed 
up in Columbus, Ohio, for the first national conference of the Un¬ 
employed Leagues. By this time, the radical intellectual leaders of 
the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, who had organized 
the Leagues, had become ardent believers in a “mass labor party” 
whose goal would be the “complete abolition of planless, profiteering 
capitalism, and the building of a workers’ republic” (Karsh and 
Garman, 91). 38 

Efforts to weld together a national organization continued through¬ 
out 1934. In March leaders from Socialist-led organizations in 
Baltimore, New York City, Westchester, Pittsburgh, Reading, and 
Hartford formed the Eastern Federation of Unemployed and Emer¬ 
gency Workers. During the summer and fall of 1934 the groups 
represented in the Eastern Federation met with the Socialist-led state 
federations from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Florida and with the Muste 
groups to plan a demonstration, out of which emerged a Provisional 
National Committee to plan for the establishment of a nationwide 
organization of the unemployed. 39 

Finally, at a conference held in Washington in early 1935, a “per¬ 
manent nonpartisan federation” of most of the large unemployed 
organizations in the United States was formed, called the Workers* 
Alliance of America. Delegates attended from unemployed organiza¬ 
tions in sixteen states. 40 A constitution was adopted, a dues system 
and a National Executive Committee were established, and the 
Executive Committe was directed by the conference to negotiate 
unification with the Communist Unemployed Councils. A second 
National Workers’ Alliance Convention in April 1936 drew 900 


38 Shortly afterwards the Unemployed Leagues became affiliated with the American 
Workers Party, which in 1934 joined with the Trotskyist Communist League of America 
to form the Workers Party of the United States, which in turn merged with the 
Socialist Party in 1936, until the Trotskyists were expelled in 1937 (Rogg, 14; Glick). 
Under the aegis of the Workers Party, issues of revolutionary strategy became pre¬ 
eminent, factional fighting was endemic, and the Unemployed Leagues lost most of 
their followers (Rosenzweig, 1975, 69-73). 

39 The demonstration on November 24 was claimed by its organizers to have turned out 
350,000 people in 22 states (Rosenzweig, 1974, 24). 

40 As is usual in these matters, estimates of affiliation varied wildly. The groups at this 
convention claimed 450,000 members, but the Communist Unemployed Councils, who 
were not yet affiliated, estimated active affiliation at 40-50,000 (Rosenzweig, 1974 26). 



76 


Poor People's Movements 

delegates representing organizations from thirty-six states, including 
the Unemployed Councils. By the end of the year the alliance claimed 
1,600 locals with a membership of 600,000 in forty-three states. 41 It 
was this convention that marked the merging of most major groups 
of the unemployed: the Workers’ Alliance, the Unemployed Councils, 
the National Unemployment League, the American Workers Union, 
and several independent state groups. David Lasser, the Socialist 
who headed the New York Workers’ Committee on Unemployment 
and who had been chairman of the first alliance, was again named 
chairman, and Herbert Benjamin, a Communist who had been 
national secretary of the Unemployed Councils, was named organiza¬ 
tional secretary. The Communists in the Unemployed Councils, by 
now well into their Popular Front phase, deferred to the Socialists 
by settling for half as many seats* on the new National Executive 
Board. With these matters resolved, a Washington headquarters was 
established, and the office and field staff expanded. State “unity" 
conventions followed the national meeting and new local organiza¬ 
tions began to write the alliance for charters. To all appearances, a 
great deal had been achieved. A national poor people’s organization 
had been born. 


THE DECLINE OF LOCAL PROTEST 

David Lasser, during his early efforts to forge what became the 
Workers’ Alliance, had argued that a national organization would 
both stimulate local organizations and give them permanence (New 
Leader , December 22, 1934, 1). In fact, while the leaders of the 
unemployed groups had been concentrating on forming a national 
organization complete with a constitution and a bureaucratic struc¬ 
ture, the local groups across the country were declining. They were 
declining largely as a result of the Roosevelt Administration’s more 
liberal relief machinery, which diverted local groups from disruptive 
tactics and absorbed local leaders in bureaucratic roles. And once 


4i Rosenzweig reports 791 delegates at this convention (1974, 33), and Seymour (Decem¬ 
ber 1937, 8) and Brophy andHallowitz (9) estimate membership in the alliance to 
have been only about 300,000. 



77 The Unemployed Workers ' Movement 

the movement weakened, and the instability of which it was one 
expression subsided, relief was cut back. That this happened speaks 
mainly to the resiliency of the American political system. That it 
happened so quickly, however, and at so cheap a price, speaks to the 
role played by leaders of the unemployed themselves. For by seeking 
to achieve more substantial reform through organization and electoral 
pressure, they forfeited local disruptions and became, however in¬ 
advertently, collaborators in the process that emasculated the move¬ 
ment. 

The ability of the local groups to attract followers had depended 
on their concrete victories in the relief centers. But the expanded 
administrative machinery, the readier funds, and the new aura of 
sympathy provided under the Roosevelt Administration made it 
possible for relief officials to regularize their agency procedures and 
to regain control over relief-giving. These officials often took the 
view that there was no true dichotomy of interest between themselves 
and the unemployed, but rather that conflict had been fostered by 
group leaders who capitalized on inadequacies to incite conflict and 
to exploit and manipulate the unemployed for political purposes. 
What was needed were standardized procedures for dealing with 
grievances according to “merit,” rather than in response to “pres¬ 
sure.” (Pressure, they argued, should be exerted on legislators, not 
on well-meaning relief administrators.) Accordingly, they began to 
develop precise criteria to determine who should get how much 
relief. At the same time, they introduced elaborate formalized pro¬ 
cedures for negotiating with organized groups of the unemployed. 
In New York City, for example, guidelines for negotiations specified 
that unemployed delegations should be limited to three to five per¬ 
sons; meetings were to be held no more than every two weeks and 
then only with a designated staff member; unemployed delegations 
and the clients they represented were never to be seen simultaneously; 
written answers were forbidden; and finally, no relief was to be given 
while the delegation was on the premises (emphasis added, Brophy 
and Hallowitz, 50-53). 

Throughout the country, similar rules were laid down, often 
through negotiations with the unemployed groups themselves. Ex¬ 
cerpts from one, prepared by the Pennsylvania State Office of the 
Consultant on Community Contracts, illustrate the intricacy of the 
new procedures as well as the benign language in which they were 
couched: 



78 


Poor People’s Movements 

OUTLINE OF PROCEDURE for the RECOGNITION of 
Unemployed and Labor Organizations and 
Handling Their Complaints 

Representatives of the Unemployed Organization in each district 
will be given forms supplied by the Relief Office on which each 
inquiry will be clearly set down. (One complaint only on each 
blank.) The forms are to be made out in duplicate. . . . 

When the client, having made application, has failed to get 
what he believes he really needs and is entitled to, after talking it 
over with his visitor, he may, if he chooses, state the case to the 
chosen representative of his organization, who will clearly and legi¬ 
bly set down the necessary information on the form supplied by 
the Relief Office. No inquiry will be answered if the client has not 
first taken the matter up with the visitor. . . . The chosen representa¬ 
tive will . . . seek to persuade the client to omit impossible demands , 
or those involving the change of rules and regulations governing 
relief over which the local relief office has no control. 

Each complaint, in duplicate on the form specified, will be sub¬ 
mitted to the District Supervisor of the Relief Board at the regular 
meeting scheduled for this purpose. . . . 

The meeting in each relief district will take place once a week 
with a Committee not exceeding five from the Unemployed Or¬ 
ganization. . . . 

Such cases as still appear to the Committee of the Unemployed 
Organization to be unsatisfactorily adjusted may be submitted to 
the County Executive Committee of the Unemployed Organization, 
and if on examination of these cases, the County Committee feels 
that further action is necessary, they may submit to the Executive 
Director for final decision. ... The Executive Director will receive 
no complaints which have not conformed to this requirement. 

The representatives of the Unemployed Organization . . . will 
earnestly endeavor to gain a thorough knowledge of policies and 
regulations and will cooperate in interpreting these to their gen¬ 
eral membership (emphasis in original, quoted in Seymour, Dec¬ 
ember 1937, Appendix). 

Within a short time, the presentation of complaints by committees 
had replaced mass demonstrations in Pennsylvania. A composite of 
the typical relief official’s view of the benefits of such procedures 
was presented in the Survey magazine of September 1936: 

We used to receive whatever sized groups the leaders sent in, rarely 
less than twenty-five. The result was just a mass meeting with every¬ 
body out-talking everybody else. Specific charges or grievances were 
completely lost in speechmaking against the general organization 



79 The Unemployed Workers’ Movement 

of society. Sometimes we’d have half a dozen delegates in a day, 
keeping the office in a turmoil. There just wasn’t time to keep our 
work going and sit in on all the speechmaking. So we insisted 
that delegations be limited. We now . . . are able to get somewhere 
(quoted in Seymour, December 1937, 16). 

Some relief agencies not only formalized their dealings with the 
unemployed groups, but saw to it that those dealings took place in 
a separate complaint office or public relations office, far from the 
relief centers. Chicago was one of the first places to establish such 
a system. The unemployed groups there were numerous, the Workers 
Committee on Unemployment alone claiming some sixty-three locals 
by 1933 (Karsh and Garman, 89). Repeated local demonstrations, 
climaxing in several injuries, inspired the county bureau of public 
welfare to establish a public relations office in January 1933, at the 
same time denying the unemployed groups access to local relief 
stations. At first the Chicago groups boycotted the new office, com¬ 
plaining of its remoteness and asserting that it had been set up to 
avoid pressure from the unemployed. The bureau held firm, how¬ 
ever, and the groups gave in. The director could then report that the 
new office 

has been and is thoroughly successful in this respect; it has 
relieved one of the most vexatious problems of district relief admin¬ 
istration. Individual complaints, both from the justly aggrieved and 
the unsatisfiable, continue to be received at the local office but 
representative committees are no longer recognized there. Insomuch 
as some of these committees were previously disruptive of all orderly 
procedure, the situation is vastly improved (quoted in Seymour, 
December 1937, 22). 

The introduction of a centralized grievance office stripped the 
Chicago unemployed groups of their main weapon against the relief 
centers. As a result, their membership declined, and internal dis¬ 
sension among the groups increased (Seymour, August 1937, 81). 
Meanwhile, the two top leaders of the Chicago Workers Committee 
on Unemployment took jobs with the Federal Emergency Relief 
Administration (Rosenzweig, 1974, 35). 

In some places, relief administrators went so far as to induct leaders 
of the unemployed into the relief bureaucracy on the grounds that 
“organized client groups meet a need,” and that “some process should 
be developed to make group ‘vocalization’ possible. Fair hearings 
and similar procedures in client group representation at advisory 



80 


Poor People’s Movements 

committee meetings should prove to be effective in relation to special 
situations” (quoted in Seymour, December 1937, 20). A report dis¬ 
tributed by the Family Welfare Association elaborated the new 
empathy of relief officialdom: “It is only as the community under¬ 
stands and participates in the work that the needs of the client can 
be satisfactorily met” (Seymour, August 1937, 66). 42 Indeed, as un¬ 
employed groups were inducted in these ways, they came to be more 
“seasoned” and “reasonable,” and functioned as a kind of auxiliary 
staff, even undertaking investigations which the agency itself did not 
have the facilities to perform (Seymour, August 1937, 68). Clearly, 
when the unemployed acceded to these new procedures, they did not 
pose much difficulty for local officials. A Chicago relief administrator 
could tell a reporter that the unemployed groups were a good 
thing because “They gave the men a chance to blow off steam” 
(Rosenzweig, 1976a). 

Similar procedures were developed under the work relief program. 
They, too, were a stabilizing force. Beginning under the Civil Works 
Administration established in 1933, and later under the Works 
Progress Administration, the unemployed began to form associations 
modeled on trade unions. At the beginning, they staged strikes, often 
successfully, for higher wages and better working conditions. In 
West Virginia, for example, CWA strikers won an increase in their 
hourly wages from thirty-five to forty-five cents; in Illinois, they won 
an increase from forty to fifty cents. Strikes could also result in 
severe penalties. Frequently the men who participated were declared 
“voluntarily separated.” But with the vast expansion of federal work 
relief in 1935, a new and more conciliatory federal policy began to 
evolve. Workers were conceded the right to organize and to select 
representatives to negotiate with relief officials; grievance procedures 
and appeals boards were established; state administrators were 
instructed in the maintenance of fair and friendly relations with 
workers. With these arrangements in place, the president himself 
declared work relief strikes illegal and authorized administrators 
to replace striking men. 

Some leaders of the unemployed, it should be acknowledged, feared 


« In line with these new views on community participation, black advisory commissions 
were set up in the Harlem Emergency Relief Bureau and the WPA, and a substantial 
number of blacks were promoted to administrative positions (Naison, 403). 




81 The Unemployed Workers’ Movement 

entanglement with the bureaucracies which administered direct 
relief or work relief, and urged resistance. The Communist Party 
organizers, schooled in the militancy of the early 1930s, were espe¬ 
cially inclined to ignore grievance procedures, at least at first. 43 (The 
Socialists had never explicitly endorsed riot-like tactics.) But when 
relief officials held firm, Communist leaders sometimes found that 
urging more abrasive tactics imperiled their standing with their 
members (Brophy and Hallowitz, 8). Most local leaders, believing 
cooperation would yield them significant influence over relief 
policies, hailed the bureaucratic reforms, and relinquished the use 
of confrontation tactics. They acceded to the new grievance pro¬ 
cedures, agreed to the elaborate rules on how negotiations should 
be conducted, and allowed themselves to become "client participants” 
or "consultants” on agency policy (on occasion to find themselves 
being lectured on the more constructive uses of their leisure time). 
The whole development appeared to be a forward-looking one, cer¬ 
tainly in the view of relief administrators, the more progressive of 
whom prided themselves on cooperating with the movement’s leader¬ 
ship by helping to "educate” the poor so that they could move from 
primitive "pressure tactics” to a more sophisticated level of political 
action—by which they meant lobbying with legislatures and negoti¬ 
ating with administrators, instead of disrupting relief offices. 

The irony was not that relief administrators held these views, but 
that many of the leaders of the unemployed did as well. The earlier 
successes of the unemployed movement in obtaining benefits for 
people had not been won by lobbying or negotiating, or by using 
standardized complaint procedures. (If there was an effective lobby 
at work, it was composed of local political officials who were extremely 
hard pressed by rising relief costs. The United States Conference of 
Mayors, for example, was formed during this period expressly for 
the purpose of persuading the federal government to provide financial 
assistance to localities for relief expenditures.) What leverage these 
groups had exerted on local relief officials resulted from the very 
disturbances, the "pressure tactics,” which both leaders and adminis¬ 
trators later scorned as primitive. Victories in obtaining relief had 


«The ban on relief station demonstrations in Chicago, for example, was bitterly 
denounced by the Communists, who continued for awhile to demonstrate in defiance 
of the ruling. And Herbert Benjamin defined the tendency to employ “more or less 
friendly" negotiations with relief officials as “right opportunism” (Rosenzweig, 1976a). 




82 


Poor People’s Movements 

been won by mobilizing people for abrasive demonstrations and by 
demanding benefits on the spot for hundreds of people. By abandon¬ 
ing disruptive tactics in favor of bureaucratic procedures, the move¬ 
ment lost the ability to influence relief decisions in the local 
offices. No longer able to produce tangible benefits, the alliance also 
lost the main inducement by which it had activated great numbers 
of people. There was in the end no mass constituency, however im¬ 
permanent, in whose name and with whose support it could nego¬ 
tiate. With the force of the movement lost, with its local leaders 
engaged in bureaucratic minuets, and with its national leaders con¬ 
centrating on legislative reform through the electoral system, relief 
officials soon regained control over the relief centers, and the national 
administration regained control of relief policy. 


THE CONTRACTION OF RELIEF 

Even as radical leaders exerted themselves to form a national organ¬ 
ization, dramatic changes had taken place in relief policy. In October 
1934 Roosevelt declared that direct relief should be terminated. His 
message was familiar, echoing as it did age-old beliefs: “Continued 
dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration 
fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. . . . We must pre¬ 
serve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also 
their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.” 
Accordingly, “The Federal Government must quit this business of 
[direct] relief” (Schlesinger, 1960, 267-268). 

Instead of direct relief, the president called for a public works 
program to provide a job for every able-bodied person, and to that 
end requested an unprecedented $4 billion appropriation, to be sup¬ 
plemented by $880 million unspent under previous emergency relief 
appropriations. As for those who could not work, which included 
some 1.5 million families or individuals currently receiving federal 
emergency assistance, they would be turned over to the states and 
localities, as before the New Deal. Under the Social Security Act of 
1935, however, the federal government would pay for a share of these 
state and local relief costs. 

At first glance, the president’s new programs seemed a bold reform, 
bolder by far than the federal relief program, and a victory for the 



83 The Unemployed Workers* Movement 

unemployed. The jobless workers of the country would no longer 
need to subsist on the degrading dole. Government would put them 
to work, and put them to work at rebuilding America. 44 

Meanwhile, those who could not work would be cared for by the 
states and localities, affirming America’s tradition of local responsi¬ 
bility for the indigent. But while the new federal programs might 
have been equal to the imagination of reformers persuaded by 
promises of massive federal action to help the unemployed, they 
were to turn out in reality to be far from equal to the magnitude of 
need, or indeed even to the magnitude of the president’s promises. 
Instead of 3.5 million jobs, the Works Progress Administration 
actually provided an average of about 2 million durings its first five 
years of operation. Moreover, job quotas fluctuated wildly from 
month to month, in no apparent relation to unemployment, so that 
project workers never knew when they might be laid off. In any case, 
those who got on were the lucky ones. At its peak, WPA accounted 
for only about one in four of the estimated unemployed (Howard, 
854-857). 45 Thus, in 1936, when WPA provided about 2.5 million 
jobs, nearly 10 million were still unemployed. 

With direct federal relief abolished, the great mass of the un¬ 
employed, together with the old, the infirm, and the orphaned, were 
once again forced to turn to state and local relief agencies, which as 
a practical matter could not handle the burden, and which as a 
political matter no longer had to. Some localities scaled down their 
grants; others simply abolished relief. Distress was especially severe 
in some industrial states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. 
In New Jersey licenses to beg were issued instead of relief (Seymour, 
December 1937, 9). Texas simply refused relief to the able-bodied 
(Washington Post, February 6, 1936). Early in 1936 FERA and WPA 
initiated several local surveys to ascertain what had happened to 
former recipients of direct federal relief who did not subsequently 
get on the WPA rolls. In one area after another they found large 
numbers of people in dire need, without food or fuel. Some were 


44 Hopkins probably echoed liberal sentiment when he wrote in 1936 that the work 
relief program signaled that the United States would never again let its poor live in 
destitution, and never again allow its communities to settle for the shabbiness of public 
life before the WPA programs (69). 

45 A count made by the Bureau of the Census in 1937 showed that all federal emergency 
workers (including those employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National 
Youth Administration, as well as the WPA) accounted for only 18 percent of the total 
number unemployed that year (Howard, 554). 




84 


Poor People’s Movements 

struggling to live on the pittance granted by local relief agencies; less 
lucky ones begged, or searched through garbage cans. 40 And in 
February 1936 Dr. Harry Ward, a professor at Union Theological 
Seminary, made a nationwide tour and reported to the press that 
people were slowly starving to death as a result of relief cuts (New 
York Post , February 13, 1936). 

These hardships provoked some new protests. In Fall River, Massa¬ 
chusetts, men cut off the WPA rolls stormed the City Hall (Boston 
Globe , January 26, 1936). In New York City some 200 relief recip¬ 
ients demonstrated at City Hall (New York Times , June 27, 1936). 
In May 1936, a month after the alliance convention, 5,000 marchers 
organized by the New Jersey Workers Alliance descended on the 
state house when relief funds ran out. Later that summer, a similar 
march took place at the Pennsylvania state house. In the fall of 
1936 alliance leaders conducted work stoppages and demonstrations 
on WPA projects to demand more adequate security wages and to 
protest layoffs (Karsh and Garman, 93-94). 

While in a few instances demonstrators got promises from state 
and local officials, none of this much moved Washington. One reason 
was that the almost unanimous support for relief measures in 1933 
had evaporated. Business was improving (although unemployment 
was hardly diminishing); local finances were no longer in a shambles; 
and what sentiment remained in favor of relief had been assuaged 
by the bold new programs of 1935. Meanwhile, with the worst of the 
national crisis apparently passed, opposition to relief in all its forms 
was rising, especially in the business community. A sample of press 
opinion at the time provides some inkling of that opposition, and 
the historically familiar reasons for it. The Chicago Tribune , on 
November 23, 1935, ran a story headlined “Relief Clients Refuse to 
Work as Corn Pickers” followed by an account of a survey of nine 
counties and the excuses that relief clients used to avoid working in 
the corn fields. The Los Angeles Examiner , on November 5, 1935, 
under the headline “Farm Loss in Millions” also explained to its 
readers that people on the dole refused to work. The New Mexican 
had a similar complaint on March 6, 1936, telling its readers that 
sheepmen could not get herders because they were on relief at forty 


46 Similar reports on the situation were issued by the American Association of Social 
Workers in 1936 and 1937. For a summary of these various findings, see Howard, 77-85. 




85 The Unemployed Workers' Movement 

dollars a month. The next day the Indianapolis News editorialized 
about the waste of relief, and especially about the inability of private 
employers to compete with the pay and working conditions provided 
by WPA. And on March 30, 1936, the New York Times summed up 
press opinion with an editorial explaining the importance of cutting 
work relief costs. There is no right to work, pontificated the edi¬ 
tors; the protests merely indicate the “demoralization wrought by ill- 
advised schemes of relief.” 

But it was not only that the political climate had changed. The 
unemployed themselves were less of a threat, and so less had to be done 
for them. They were less of a threat partly because their numbers 
had been divided. Many of the most competent and able had been 
absorbed into the new work projects; some had even been hired to 
work in the relief centers. Many others had been shunted to the 
residual state and local direct relief programs. The remainder were 
left with nowhere to turn, but their numbers were reduced and 
their sense of indignation blunted by New Deal reforms. All of this 
was made easier, however, by the directions local affiliates of the 
Workers’ Alliance had taken in the local centers. It remained to be 
seen what the alliance would achieve as a national lobbying force. 


Organization and Electoral Influence 

The Workers’ Alliance of America, committed from the start to 
obtaining reform through lobbying, reacted to the administration’s 
new programs by attacking the White House for its empty promises 
and drafting a relief bill of its own. The bill did not brook com¬ 
promise. It called for a $6 billion relief appropriation for the 
seventeen-month period from February 1, 1936, to June 30, 1937; for 
relief at decent standards; and for “security wages” on work projects 
equal to trade union scales. The alliance used its network to deluge 
the White House with postcards, telegrams, and petitions. But the 
bill failed by overwhelming margins in the Congress. 

This did not deter the alliance leaders from the strategy of per¬ 
suasion and coalition on which they had embarked. If anything, 
Roosevelt’s initiatives in other areas during 1935—the Wagner Act, 
the Wealth Tax Act, and the Social Security Act, for example—had 
the consequence of moderating whatever abrasiveness their earlier 



Poor People’s Movements 86 

rhetoric had contained. The second alliance convention was held in 
the Department of Labor auditorium, and Roosevelt himself was 
invited to address the delegates (Rosenzweig, 1974, 35). Roosevelt 
declined, but Nels Anderson, Director of Labor Relations for the 
WPA, addressed the friendly convention instead. David Lasser sub¬ 
sequently described himself as the New Deal’s spur on the left: “We 
had an agreement with Harry Hopkins always to ask for more” 
(Rosenzweig, 1974, 33). 

But the agreement was to. ask, not to get. Aubrey Williams, 
Hopkins’ deputy, scolded an alliance delegation that demanded an 
increase in WPA wages, instructing them to “lay your problems 
before Congress when it comes back. Don’t embarrass your friends” 
(Rosenzweig, 1974, 34). And, in April 1937, when alliance leaders 
met with Harry Hopkins to again demand an increase in WPA wages, 
Hopkins simply turned them down. 

As if following the instructions of New Deal officials, leaders of 
the alliance, now based in Washington, D.C., began to cultivate rela¬ 
tions with several friendly senators and congressmen during the 
spring of 1937, and regularized its cordial relationship with WPA 
officials. The alliance had been recognized as the official bargaining 
agent for WPA workers, and alliance leaders now corresponded 
frequently with WPA administrators, communicating a host of 
complaints, and discussing innumerable procedural questions regard¬ 
ing WPA administrative regulations. Some of the complaints were 
major, having to do with pay cuts and arbitrary layoffs. Much of the 
correspondence, however, had to do with minute questions of pro¬ 
cedure, and especially with the question of whether WPA workers 
were being allowed to make up the time lost while attending alliance 
meetings. 

Alliance leaders also wrote regularly to the president, reviewing 
the economic situation for him, deploring cuts in WPA, and calling 
for an expansion of the program (correspondence between David 
Lasser, Herbert A. Benjamin, Aubrey Williams, David Niles, Colonel 
F. C. Harrington, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, WPA files). 

In June 1937 the third annual convention of the Workers’ Alliance, 
meeting in Milwaukee, called for an appropriation of $3 billion for 
work relief and $1 billion for direct relief, as well as the establish¬ 
ment of a national planning commission to plan permanent public 
works programs. The alliance also sponsored the Schwellenbach- 
Allen Resolution, which provided that no WPA worker could be 



87 The Unemployed Workers ' Movement 

discharged who was unable to find suitable private employment. The 
resolution never reached the floor of the Congress. In fact, Congress 
adjourned two days before an alliance-sponsored national march 
reached Washington to lobby for the measure, despite the presence 
of an advance contingent of hundreds of marchers (Benjamin). 47 
Instead, Harry Hopkins agreed to establish another joint committee 
with the alliance to develop plans for a WPA labor relations board. 

When a new and severe recession hit in the winter of 1937-1938, 
there was a wave of small demonstrations by the unemployed across 
the country. But there is no evidence that the national alliance 
called for them, or that its local organizers mobilized them. The 
protests appear to have occurred in cities where the unemployed had 
not been previously organized; not much happened in New York or 
Chicago, for example, which had been former strongholds of alliance 


*7 In a personal communication to one of us, Benjamin takes strong exception to our 
views of the alliance activities. It is worth quoting his opinions at length: “You seem 
unaware that our ‘lobbying’ activities differed very greatly from what is generally 
termed lobbying. We engaged in mass lobbying; angry delegations besieging reactionary 
members of Congress in their offices. We marched and picketed and were arrested. We 
appeared before legislative committees not to plead but to demand. And we engaged in 
electoral activities that demonstrated, to some members of Congress at least, that we did 
have political clout that they would disregard only at their peril. (The WAA, contrary 
to your thesis, was credited with among others defeating the supposedly unshakable 
chairman of the powerful Rules Committee.) In your opinion, it was more important 
to disrupt some local relief office over some petty grievance of an individual. We found 
that it was more important to establish decent standards and regulations through mass 
actions and then handle routine matters in the way a shop chairman handles grievances. 
And our Executive Board and conventions, speaking for our membership, approved our 
policies. So we prepared and fought for the (Marcantonio) Relief and Work Standards 
Act and helped our local organizations prepare local ordinances modelled on this bill. 
We fought for higher relief appropriations to provide more WPA jobs and higher wage 
scales. . . . Your basic error, my good friend, is that you start with an incorrect 
premise. . . . The struggle of the unemployed is a political struggle. It is directed 
against the political institutions, the agencies of government who make policies and 
appropriate funds. Our job was to make this clear to backward workers who did not 
understand that they had a right and therefore should not plead but demand and fight. 
It was easy to get them to raise hell with a social worker about their own immediate 
grievances. We taught them to go beyond this to a higher level of political action. And 
this was the most important contribution we made to the political education and 
development of the American workers” (underlining in the original, August 8, 1976). 
We are grateful for the opportunities to cite Benjamin’s disagreements with our analysis 
in his own words. We think his comments help to make clear that the alliance leaders 
were neither weak nor opportunistic. But we believe that they were mistaken in 
restricting their understanding of “political institutions” to legislative and executive 
bodies; the relief system was also a political institution, and in the midst of the 
depression, an important one. We think they were also mistaken in failing to recognize 
the relationship between massive local disruptions and the actions taken by legislative 
and executive bodies. 




88 


Poor People’s Movements 

groups. 48 Only in Detroit did large numbers gather, and then at a 
rally sponsored by the newly formed United Auto Workers to protest 
inadequate relief after layoffs in the auto industry (State Journal, 
Lansing, Michigan, February 5, 1938). 49 

Undaunted by its earlier legislative failures, 50 the alliance con¬ 
tinued to propose legislative programs, and to cement its relations 
with the administration. In March 1938 the alliance called a National 
Conference on Work and Security to “hammer out a real program” 
of social reconstruction (Rodman). To ensure receptivity to its pro¬ 
posals, the alliance mobilized itself to support the national Demo¬ 
cratic ticket in the fall elections. The lead story in an issue of its 
newspaper WORK dated October 22, 1938, emblazoned with the 
headline alliance swings forces into November election cam¬ 
paign, provides a description of these efforts: 

Acting immediately on the political action program for the Workers 
Alliance outlined by 500 delegates at the fourth annual convention 
in Cleveland, Alliance locals and State organizations from coast to 
coast sent in reports of feverish activity on behalf of New Deal, 
labor and progressive candidates for governors’ chairs, State Legisla¬ 
tures and Congress. 

Leaflets outlining the stake of the nation’s jobless and WPA work¬ 
ers in the November elections; mass rallies called jointly by the Alli¬ 
ance and the progressive trade unions, at which pro-labor candi- 


48In St. Louis, the Globe Democrat reported that a crowd of 750 people had demanded 
relief at once for the unemployed (December 17, 1937). In Grand Rapids, 500 relief and 
WPA clients rallied ( Grand Rapids Herald, February 10, 1938), and in Kalamazoo a 
crowd of jobless workers marched to the courthouse ( Detroit Free Press, February 22, 
1938). The San Francisco Chronicle reported a mass demonstration in Marshall Square 
to protest inadequate relief (February 27, 1938). And in Spokane, some 800 protested 
against cuts in the rolls ( Spokane Review, April 1, 1938), while in Seattle, 300 jobless 
workers occupied the relief offices, demanding lodging and feeding ( Seattle Times , 
April 2, 1938). 

49 Montgomery and Schatz report that locals of the United Electrical Workers and of 
the Steel Workers Organizing Committee also undertook relief battles for their unem¬ 
ployed members during the collapse of 1937-1938. Moreover, in Minneapolis where the 
Trotskyist-led Local 574 of the Teamsters was influential, a number of unions joined 
together in the summer of 1939 to lead a strike against WPA projects to protest cut¬ 
backs imposed by Congress. 

eo Benjamin again takes exception to our views, citing the “billions that have been spent 
since for unemployment insurance, public welfare, social security and the many other 
such measures” as gains won by the Workers’ Alliance (personal communication, August 
20, 1976). But all of the measures cited by Benjamin were enacted in 1935, before the 
Workers’ Alliance had been launched. In our view, the credit for these reforms ought 
to go to the movement of the unemployed rather than to the organization that emerged 
out of it. 




89 The Unemployed Workers' Movement 

dates outlined their programs; house-to-house canvassing; radio pro¬ 
grams—through every medium the Workers Alliance, speaking in 
the name of 400,000 organized unemployed men and women in the 
nation, is calling out its members to march to the polls on Nov. 
8th. and cast ballots for progress. 

New York City Alliance will climax months of strenuous political 
activity with a huge and novel parade in which they will demon¬ 
strate to the public just how much WPA means to the 175,000 
workers and their families on work programs in that city. 

Pennsylvania Workers Alliance has rallied the entire state organi¬ 
zation in a campaign to expose the phoney “liberalism” behind 
which the Republican Party is masking in the Keystone State primar¬ 
ies, and calling upon the unemployed on relief and WPA to vote 
for the New Deal, Governor Earle slate to the man. 

Minnesota Alliance has begun carrying on a vigorous campaign 
for Governor Benson and the election of progressive Farmer-Labor 
Party candidates. . . . 

Out West, in Montana, the Workers Alliance has thrown the 
full weight of its powerful organization behind the campaign to 
re-elect one of Congress’ foremost progressives, Jerry O’Connell. . . . 

Events would soon demonstrate how powerful the organization was. 
The electoral efforts of the alliance were not sufficient to command 
even token responses from the National Administration. When the 
alliance invited Aubrey Williams, deputy administrator of WPA 
to speak at its September 1938 convention, he turned them down. 
When they substituted Father Francis J. Haas, a New Deal official, 
he cancelled at the last minute, but not before some 100,000 leaflets 
had been distributed which carried his name. 

More important, WPA funds were cut in 1939 after Congress had 
introduced provisions that both reduced WPA wages and compelled 
workers to be terminated who had been on the WPA rolls for 
eighteen continuous months. The leadership of the alliance, as was 
its wont, called a National Right-to-Work Congress, and on June 13 
Lasser and Benjamin respectfully submitted the opinions of the 
assembled delegates of the unemployed to the president. The un¬ 
employed, they said, had called for public works and government 
measures to stimulate the economy, but assured the president that 
“It is the conviction of the people represented in our Congress that 
the failure to achieve recovery to date could not be laid at the door 
of your administration.” They concluded with this mild reproach: 

The congress also asked us to convey to you the feeling of disappoint¬ 
ment at the inadequate request for funds for work for the unem- 



90 


Poor People’s Movements 

ployed for the coming 12 months. This disappointment was especi¬ 
ally keen because the delegates could not reconcile your request with 
your generous and sound philosophy on this question, so enthusiasti¬ 
cally endorsed by them .. . and expressed the hope that your admin¬ 
istration could see fit, before it is too late, to reconsider its estimate 
in the light of present day economic and business conditions. . . . 
The delegates wished us to convey to you their heartfelt apprecia¬ 
tion for your wise and courageous leadership, and to express our 
earnest hope for a program which will make it possible for them 
to do their part as Americans to help achieve recovery, security and 
plenty for our country and its people. 

A few weeks later Lasser followed the letter with a telegram. The 
tone was more urgent, ending with a request for permission to release 
the telegram to the press. Lasser was informed by the White House 
to do as he pleased (WPA files). 

In fact, the alliance was of no political consequence. The end had 
already come, and was evident by the fourth annual convention in 
September 1938, which drew only five hundred delegates. The long 
succession of legislative defeats, and the bureaucratic envelopment 
which caused a decline of grassroots protests, had taken their toll. 
Membership and militancy had ebbed. Cleavages among the various 
factions widened; embittered and frustrated, the disparate groups 
that remained began to fall out. In 1940 David Lasser resigned to 
take a job with the WPA, and a year later the Workers’ Alliance of 
America was quietly dissolved. 

The Workers’ Alliance of America had lofty aspirations. Until 
1937 its constitution called for “abolition of the profit system,” al¬ 
though its language became more moderate as its commitment to 
the New Deal became more ardent. Its legislative proposals included, 
among other things, all-inclusive unemployment insurance to be 
paid for by individual and corporate income taxes, and to be ad¬ 
ministered by workers and farmers. Communists, Socialists, 
Musteites, Trotskyites, and other unaffiliated radicals had agreed on 
the importance of building a national organization to exert electoral 
pressure for these reforms. 51 But even while the alliance leaders were 


81 Brendan Sexton, who was head of the New York Alliance, blames the demise of the 
organization on the Communist Party activists who became so committed to New Deal 
mayors, governors, and other public officials, including Roosevelt, that they were unwill¬ 
ing to confront them. “We couldn’t keep the organization alive if we were unwilling to 




91 The Unemployed Workers' Movement 

taking pride in their organizational structure and their dues-paying 
membership, and were inventing far-reaching legislative reforms, 
their local affiliates had become entangled in bureaucratic procedures 
and were declining. That leadership failed to understand that gov¬ 
ernment does not need to meet the demands of an organized van¬ 
guard in order to assuage mass unrest, although it does have to 
deal with the unrest itself. One way that government deals with 
unrest is through the vanguard. By creating a political climate that 
encouraged faith in the possibility of national electoral influence, 
the New Deal destroyed the incentive of the leaders of the unem¬ 
ployed to exacerbate disorder. 52 And by instituting procedures on the 
local level that subverted the use of disruptive tactics, the New Deal 
undermined the ability of the leaders of the unemployed to exacer¬ 
bate disorder. Once that process had unfolded, the Workers’ Alliance 
of America no longer mattered, one way or the other. 

The particular tragedy of the Workers’ Alliance is not that it 
failed to achieve the fundamental reforms to which it was com¬ 
mitted. Achievements of that order are the result of forces larger 
than leaders alone can muster, and the alliance was neither the 
first to try nor the last to fail. Rather, if there is a tragedy, it is in 
the role the alliance played during the brief and tumultuous period 
when people were ready to act against the authorities and against 
the norms that ordinarily bind them. Instead of exploiting the pos¬ 
sibilities of the time by pushing turbulence to its outer limits, the 
leaders of the unemployed set about to build organization and to 
press for legislation, and in so doing, they virtually echoed the credo 
of officialdom itself. 

For a brief time, there were twenty million people on the relief 
rolls, but millions more badly needed relief and never got it. And 
when the alliance abandoned the relief centers to lobby for lofty 
programs of basic change, those millions on relief were abandoned 


demonstrate against the very people who were refusing to expand WPA and to improve 
the relief system'* (personal correspondence, February 4, 1970). While we agree with 
Sexton’s evaluation of the outcome of alliance strategies, we see little evidence that 
nonparty leaders of the alliance took a different stance. We should also note that 
Sexton disagrees with our interpretation in other respects, arguing that the alliance 
flourished under the bureaucratization of relief, and the bureaucratization of its own 
internal structure, and was destroyed only by its unwillingness to demonstrate against 
New Deal officialdom, a policy that Sexton apparently considers unrelated to these 
organizational developments. 

52 Brian Glick draws conclusions broadly similar to ours regarding the effects of New 
Deal programs on the orientation of the alliance leadership on the national level. 




92 


Poor People’s Movements 

too: the rolls were cut back and millions who were still unemployed 
were once again left destitute. The tragedy, in sum, is that the 
alliance did not win as much as it could, while it could. 


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versity of Chicago Press, 1936. 

Bakke, E. Wight. The Unemployed Man: A Social Study. New York: 
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-. Citizens Without Work: A Study of the Effects of Unemploy - 

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Benjamin, Herbert. “Why We Marched.” Social Work Today, October 
1937. 

Bernstein, Irving. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 
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-. The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 

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Bird, Caroline. The Invisible Scar. New York: David McKay Co., 1966. 

Boyer, Richard O., and Morais, Herbert M. Labor's Untold Story. New 
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Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Publication, 
1974. 

Brophy, Alice, and Hallowitz, George. “Pressure Groups and the Relief 
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Brown, Josephine C. Public Relief, 1929-1939. New York: Henry Holt 
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Buhle, Paul Merlyn. “Marxism in the United States, 1900-1940.” 
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Cayton, Horace. “No Rent Money . . . 1931.” The Nation , September 
9, 1931. 

Chandler, Lester V. America's Greatest Depression, 1929-1941. New 
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Colcord, Joanna C., et al. Emergency Work Relief As Carried Out in 
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Cooley, Robert Angell. The Family Encounters the Depression. New 
York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. 



93 The Unemployed Workers ' Movement 

Cross, Frank Clay, “Revolution in Colorado/’ The Nation, February 
7, 1934. 

De Caux, Len. Labor Radical From the Wobblies to CIO: A Personal 
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Edelman, Murray. “Growth and Expansion/’ In Labor and the New 
Deal, edited by Milton Derber and Edwin Young. Madison: University 
of Wisconsin Press, 1957. 

Feder, Leah H. Unemployment Relief in Periods of Depression . New 
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Foner, Philip. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. 
New York: International Publishers, 1947. 

Gilpin, DeWitt. “Fired for Inefficiency/’ Social Work Today 3 
(November 1935). 

Glick, Brian. “The Thirties: Organizing the Unemployed.’’ Liberation, 
September-October 1967. 

Gosnell, Harold. Machine Politics: Chicago Model. Chicago: University 
of Chicago Press, 1937. 

-. The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago. Chicago: University 

of Chicago Press, 1967. 

Greenstein, Harry. “The Maryland Emergency Relief Program—Past 
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Gutman, Herbert G. “The Failure of the Movement by the Unem¬ 
ployed for Public Works in 1873.’’ Political Science Quarterly 80 (June 
1965). 

-. Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America. New 

York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. 

Herndon, Angelo. Let Me Live. New York: Arno Press and The New 
York Times, 1969. 

Hofstadter, Richard, and Wallace, Michael, eds. American Violence: 
A Documentary History. New York: Vintage Books, 1971. 

Hopkins, Harry L. Spending to Save: The Complete Story of Relief. 
New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1936. 

Howard, Donald C. The WPA and Federal Relief Policy. New York: 
Russell Sage Foundation, 1943. 

Huntington, Emily H. Unemployment Relief and the Unemployed 
in the San Francisco Bay Region, 1929-1934. Berkeley: University of 
California Press, 1939. 

Karsh, Bernard, and Garman, Phillip L. “The Impact of the Poli¬ 
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Edwin Young. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957. 



94 


Poor People’s Movements 

Keeran, Roger Roy. “Communists and Auto Workers: The Struggle 
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Kerr, Clark, “Productive Self-Help Enterprises of the Unemployed.” 
Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1939. 

Komarovsky, Mirra. The Unemployed Man and His Family. New York: 
Dryden Press, 1940. 

Kurzman, Paul. Harry Hopkins and the New Deal. Fairlawn, New 
Jersey: R. E. Burdick Publishers, 1974. 

Lasswell, Harold D., and Blumenstock, Dorothy. World Revolutionary 
Propaganda. 1939. Reprint. Plainview, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 
1970. 

Leab, Daniel. “ ‘United We Eat’: The Creation and Organization of 
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Lescohier, Don D., and Brandeis, Elizabeth. History of Labor in the 
United States, 1896-1932 (in the 4-volume series The History of Labor in 
the United States , compiled by John R. Commons and his associates). 
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Lynd, Robert S., and Lynd, Helen Merrell. Middletown in Transition: 
A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1937. 

Moley, Raymond. “Comment.” Political Science Quarterly 87 (Decem¬ 
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Montgomery, David, and Schatz, Ronald. “Facing Layoffs.” Radical 
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published Ph. D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1975. 

Prickett, James Robert. “Communists and the Communist Issue in 
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Rodman, Selden. “Lasser and the Workers’ Alliance.” The Nation, 
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1936). 

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Rosenzweig, Roy. “Radicals in the Great Depression: Socialists and 
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-. “Radicals and the Jobless: The Musteites and the Unem¬ 
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95 The Unemployed Workers* Movement 

-. “Organizations of the Unemployed in the 1930’s/’ Unpub¬ 
lished paper, January 1976. 

-. “Organizing the Unemployed: The Early Years of the Great 

Depression, 1929-1933.” Radical America 10 (July-August 1976). 

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-. The Age of Roosevelt, Vol. 3: The Politics of Upheaval . 

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WPA General Files 040, National Archives and Record Service. 



CHAPTER 

3 


The Industrial Workers’ 
Movement 


The experience of labor unions in the United States is the historical 
bedrock on which the organizer’s credo is grounded. As organizers 
recount this history, factory workers finally organized into large, 
stable organizations after many bloody travails, and were then able 
to exert influence in the factory. Moreover, organization was said 
to have yielded influence in politics as well. The large voting num¬ 
bers and financial resources which the unions accumulated presum¬ 
ably gave working people a measure of political power. To be sure, 
some believers in the credo are disappointed in the way unions have 
used their power, blaming an oligarchical leadership for a narrow 
preoccupation with wages and hours and for the avoidance of more 
fundamental economic and political issues. However, the belief that 
working people were able to gain both economic and electoral power 
through organization still holds firm. It is this belief that suggests 
to organizers the model other powerless groups should follow. 

But on closer historical scrutiny, the bedrock turns out to be 
sand. Factory workers had their greatest influence and were able to 
extract their most substantial concessions from government during 
the early years of the Great Depression before they were organized 
into unions. Their power was not rooted in organization, but in their 
capacity to disrupt the economy. For the most part strikes, demonstra¬ 
tions, and sit-downs spread during the mid-1930s despite existing 
unions rather than because of them. Since these disorders occurred 
at a time of widespread political instability, threatened political 
leaders were forced to respond with placating concessions. One of 
these concessions was protection by government of the right to 

96 



97 


The Industrial Workers 9 Movement 


organize. Afterwards, union membership rose, largely because gov¬ 
ernment supported unionization. But once organized, the political 
influence of workers declined. The unions not only failed to win 
new victories from government commensurate with the victories of 
unorganized workers during the 1930s, but those already won were 
whittled away. Before we go on to offer our explanation of why 
industrial workers became a political force during the depression, we 
need to say a little about their lack of force before the depression. 


The State Against Labor 

When industrial workers band together they have power in their 
dealings with capital, or so it would seem. Their power is of course 
the disruptive power of the strike. If workers withhold their labor, 
production is halted and profits dwindle, and employers are pressured 
into making concessions. Moreover, as economic concentration pro¬ 
ceeds, and the scale of enterprises and their interpenetration in¬ 
creases, the power of labor ought to increase as well. Not only do 
large-scale enterprises facilitate collective action among workers, 
but the impact of strikes is more severe, reverberating throughout 
an interdependent and concentrated economy. 

All this may seem to be true in principle, but in historical fact it 
has not been. Between the onset of rapid industrialization at the end 
of the nineteenth century and the Great Depression, the history of 
strikes in mass production industries was largely a history of failure. 1 
The explanation of this failure has preoccupied students of labor 
history. The interpretations which have resulted tend to fasten on 
divisions in the American working class which inhibited the solidar¬ 
ity necessary for effective strike action: 2 the corrosive effect of the 
business cycle on labor unity; deep status and ethnic conflicts among 


1 Gutman points out that not all strikes were defeated, and he cites information col¬ 
lected by the New Jersey Bureau of Labor Statistics on 890 New Jersey industrial dis¬ 
putes between 1881 and 1887 showing that strikers won over half the recorded disputes 
(48). But during these and succeeding years, the largest industrial confrontations were 
defeated, as in the major railroad, mining, and steel strikes. 

2 One of the most influential of these interpretations can be found in Selig Perlman. 
More radical analysts score Perlman for his defense of the bread-and-butter trade 
unionism that has emerged in the United States, but they do not take major exception 
to his analysis of the factors accounting for the historic lack of class consciousness. 




98 


Poor People's Movements 

workers; the divisive effects of the promise and reality of upward 
mobility; and the oligarchical and exclusionary character of such 
unions as did exist. 

We will briefly review each of these explanations, for we think 
they help to explain the weakness of strike power. There can be no 
doubt that solidarity was essential to the effectiveness of strikes, for 
without it striking workers were easily replaced and production was 
easily continued. And there can be no doubt that American workers 
were divided. These divisions had their roots in features of the 
American economy and in the characteristics of the American work¬ 
ing population, as well as in deliberate practices of employers de¬ 
signed to exacerbate divisions in order to turn workers against each 
other. With this review made, however, we will go on to argue that 
divisiveness among American workers fails to account adequately 
for the defeat of labor struggles. In instance after instance, worker 
struggles did not collapse from lack of internal unity; they were 
smashed by the coercive power of the state. 

First and most obviously worker solidarity was influenced by 
market conditions. Workers could join together in strikes and slow¬ 
downs more readily when business prospered and when the demand 
for labor was strong. But during periods of depression, men and 
women were laid off, wages were cut, and hours were lengthened. 
Defensive strikes and riots sometimes erupted during depressions, 
but they usually had little effect. Not only did employers find it 
easier to resist strikes when trade was slow and there was less to be 
lost by halting production, but with jobs scarce, workers were forced 
to undersell each other in the scramble for employment. Workers’ 
associations which emerged during boom times were unable to resist 
these forces; they were usually simply wiped out when the market 
fell. 3 

Second, solidarity was also inhibited because the American work¬ 
ing population was fragmented by intense divisions determined by 
occupational status, by race, and by ethnicity. The result was a com- 
mensurately weak recognition of class commonalities. To some ex¬ 
tent, these divisions were a natural and inevitable result of the 
heterogeneous origins of the American working population. But it 
was also the policy of employers to take advantage of such distinc- 


3 Boyer and Morais report, for example, that of the thirty national unions in existence 
before the depression of 1873, only eight or nine remained by 1877 (40). 




99 The Industrial Workers' Movement 

tions, to elaborate them, and by doing so, to weaken working-class 
solidarity. 

Thus it is well known that the status-conscious artisans of the 
nineteenth century looked down upon the growing stratum of un¬ 
skilled workers created by industrialization. This sense of themselves 
as a class apart was strengthened when industrialists agreed to bargain 
only with skilled workers during mass strikes. By the end of the 
nineteenth century, as advancing mechanization drove many skilled 
workers into the ranks of the unskilled, and as a series of large-scale 
industrial strikes were defeated, status anxieties and simple fear 
combined to heighten craft exclusiveness among the remaining 
skilled workers. 4 Even as this leveling process went forward, the 
advantages of occupational and status distinctions appear to have 
been recognized by industrialists, and under the banner of “scientific 
management” some industries adopted the deliberate policy of elab¬ 
orating job distinctions, both hierarchically and horizontally, thus 
multiplying divisions among workers. 5 

Status and job distinctions were often aggravated by racial and 
ethnic differences, and race and ethnicity also became the basis on 
which employers divided workers who were similarly situated. The 
expanded need for unskilled labor was filled by a vast increase in 
immigration, first from Ireland and Northern Europe, later from 
Southern Europe, then from Eastern Europe (and in the West, from 
the Orient). The immigrants provided a virtually bottomless reser¬ 
voir of helpless and poverty-stricken workers on which employers 
could draw. The regular flow of immigrants was assured by powerful 
industrial lobbies which opposed any restrictions on “free labor” 
(while protecting fervently the tariff restrictions on free commerce). 6 
Between 1860 and 1920, 28.5 million immigrants came to the United 


4 Leon Fink argues that in the 1880s skilled workers were at the heart of working-class 
mobilizations, and that they received support from a broad range of groups. He 
attributes the subsequent general rebuff of new immigrants and blacks by skilled 
workers to the collapse of the Knights of Labor and the defeat of a series of industrial 
strikes (67-68). 

s Recent work by radical economists provides evidence that at the end of the nineteenth 
century, large corporations were restructuring job titles so as to elaborate status 
divisions among their workers, and to thereby inhibit solidarity and depress wages. See 
for example Stone; and Gordon, Edwards, and Reich. The rationale and methods for 
such fragmentation of natural worker groupings were provided by the doctrines of 
scientific management (Davis). 

6 The labor was “free” only from the employers’ perspective. In 1864 Congress authorized 
employers to import foreign workers under contracts which indentured them to work 
for their employers until their passage was paid off (Brecher, xiii). 



100 


Poor People’s Movements 

States (Brecher, xiii). As low-paid foreigners began to squeeze out 
higher-paid native American workers in many occupations, ethnic 
antagonisms were added to the antagonism between the skilled and 
the unskilled, further dissipating any sense of a common fate among 
workers. Nor were employers innocent in promoting these effects. 
Different immigrant groups were regularly pitted against each other, 
one group being used to underbid the wages of the other. Commons 
wrote of a visit he paid to a Chicago employment office in 1904: 

I saw, seated on benches around the office, a sturdy group of blond¬ 
haired Nordics. I asked the employment agent, “How comes it 
you are employing only Swedes?” He answered, “Well, you see, it 
is only for this week. Last week we employed Slovaks. We change 
about among different nationalities and languages. It prevents 
them from getting together. We have the thing systematized” 
(Lescohier and Brandeis, xxv). 

Brecher cites a Carnegie plant manager writing in 1875: “My experi¬ 
ence has been that Germans and Irish, Swedes and what I denomi¬ 
nate ‘buckwheats’ (young American country boys), judiciously mixed, 
make the most effective and tractable force you can find” (120). As 
late as 1937, the Jones and McLaughlin Steel Corporation main¬ 
tained rigid segregation between nationality groups, skillfully play¬ 
ing one off against the other (Bernstein, 1971, 475). 7 Such practices 
were, of course, far more likely to be resorted to during strikes, 
when immigrants and native blacks were used as strikebreakers. 8 

Third, in comparison with Europe, workers in America had 
greater opportunities for both economic and geographic mobility, 
at least until the end of the nineteenth century. Wages in the new 


7 Ethnic consciousness, by isolating foreign-language groups, also created an insular 
environment which made possible the development of militant protest among some of 
these groups. Thus Gutman reports that immigrant workers in the mid-1880s joined 
trade unions in far greater numbers than their proportion in the work force, acting out 
of what he defines as a proclivity to seek self-protection and continuity of culture and 
tradition (48-^9). Fink argues similarly that ethnic solidarity played an important role 
in the upheavals of the 1880s, and gives examples of both Polish and Irish worker 
mobilizations in which ethnic nationalism and working-class assertiveness seemed to 
energize each other (66). Many years later, the Communist Party “found comparative 
difficulty in establishing roots among native-born English-speaking workers," and “relied 
heavily for support on the foreign language federations . . .” (Aronowitz, 142). 

8 Aronowitz reports that in the Homestead steel mill in 1907, English-speaking immi¬ 
grants earned $16 a week, native-born whites $22, blacks were earnings $17, and Slavs 
who had been brought in with blacks to break the Homestead strike fifteen years 
earlier were earning $12 (150). 




101 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


country were higher; as manufacturing expanded, opportunities 
seemed to abound, at least for the lucky, the skilled, the ambitious, 
and at least during periods of prosperity. 9 Moreover, for those who 
were not destitute, there was the opportunity for free land and free 
mining in the west. 10 Commons noted that the leaders of defeated 
labor struggles in the East could often be found on the free land of 
the West (Lescohier and Brandeis, xiii). Indeed, the Homestead Act 
which opened up the public domain in the West is generally re¬ 
garded as a concession to labor, a concession which did not improve 
the lot of factory workers, but which gave a few of them the alterna¬ 
tive of not being factory workers. Opportunity for advancement or 
for land thus drained off some of the more discontented and perhaps 
the more able, and also helped to sustain among those left behind 
the hope that they too could move upward, that their future lay 
not with collective struggles of the present, but with the individual 
opportunities of a future day. 

Still another factor inhibiting and weakening industrial struggles 
was the status-conscious and oligarchical character of those workers’ 
organizations that did develop. These were usually local unions of 
artisans whose ability to organize owed much to a tradition of 
brotherhood and pride in craft, as well as to the leverage that such 
organized craftsmen could exert in industries where they controlled 
entry into their occupations. These sources of strength, however, 
encouraged them to ignore and even to scorn the growing mass of 
unskilled workers. Moreover, the inevitable tendencies toward oli¬ 
garchy, noted by Michels in Europe, seem to have been stronger 
within the craft unions in the United States, perhaps because class 
consciousness was weaker, mobility strivings sharper, and the busi¬ 
ness ethos more widely shared by workers and their leaders. 11 Over 
time, the leaders of craft unions came to function more as labor 
contractors than as labor leaders, depending more on collusive ar¬ 
rangements with employers for the maintenance of their leadership 


® Gutman argues that developing industries did in fact offer unusual opportunities for 
mobility to skilled craftsmen and mechanics in the early stages of American industriali¬ 
zation (211-233). 

10 Roberta Ash points out that by the late nineteenth century, most urban workers 
were too impoverished to undertake the move west (36). 

11 The custom of paying union leaders salaries comparable to business executives, a 
practice not nearly so marked in Europe, is one evidence of these tendencies; the 
practice of investing union funds in various business ventures is another. 




102 


Poor People's Movements 

positions than on a united and militant following. 12 The result was 
a leadership that was less and less inclined to engage in strikes or 
agitation, and less and less interested in recruiting a mass following. 
When mass strikes did occur, they were often opposed by established 
union leaders, some of whom went so far in the big strikes of the 
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as to encourage their 
members to engage in strikebreaking. 

In the preceding paragraphs, we have tried to summarize the 
prevailing explanations of American labor’s inability to make much 
progress before the Great Depression. It is our view, however, that 
explanations pointing to divisions among industrial workers miss 
the main point. Mass strikes did occur, and the strikers often held 
fast, obdurate in the face of overwhelming economic necessity. The 
ultimate enfeeblement of workers was not just their lack of solid¬ 
arity, and their consequent lack of economic power, but their lack of 
political power. Whatever force workers mounted against their bosses, 
whatever their determination and their unity, they could not with¬ 
stand the legal and military power of the state, and that power was 
regularly used against them. During the colonial period, industrial 
codes established maximum wages, declared work compulsory, and for¬ 
bade the combination of workmen for the purpose of raising wages 
(Raybeck, 12). The courts continued to view unions as criminal con¬ 
spiracies until 1842 (Fleming, 123). As time went on, the laws regu¬ 
lating labor softened, but the practices of government did not. 
Until the Great Depression, striking workers were regularly subject 
to court injunctions and criminal prosecutions. 13 And what could 
not be done by law was done by military force. Company troops, 
deputized for the occasion by local sheriffs, state militia, and federal 
troops, were all deployed time and again to attack strikers and to 
protect strikebreakers. In the face of this kind of opposition, strikes 
were bound to fail, no matter whether the workers were united or 
not. 

Some of the bitterest examples of the use of force by government 


12 These exchanges between labor leaders and employers were often mediated by local 
political machine leaders. For an interesting discussion of the links between union 
leaders and machine leaders, see Rogin. 

is Some 1,845 labor injunctions were issued by federal and state courts from 1880 to 
1930 (Bernstein, 1970, 200). The courts were also used to frame the leaders of workers’ 
struggles on such charges as murder or insurrection or anarchy, as illustrated by the 
cases of the Molly McGuires, Joe Hill, the Haymarket anarchists, Big Bill Haywood, and 
Sacco and Vanzetti, to name only a few of the most notorious instances. 




103 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


against strikers occurred during the severe depressions of the late 
nineteenth century when unemployment and wage cuts made people 
desperate, and the scale of the calamity forged a unity among workers 
which led to epidemics of protests. In 1877, when four years of 
severe depression had led to sharp wage cuts and left perhaps one 
million industrial workers unemployed, a strike on the Pennsylvania 
and Baltimore and Ohio railroads led to riots that swept through a 
dozen major rail centers, escalating to open conflict between workers 
and troops. When local police and state militia were unable to handle 
the disturbances—in Pittsburgh, for example, police and militia were 
openly sympathetic with the mob that was burning railroad property 
to the ground—3,000 federal troops were rushed from city to city 
under the direction of the War Department. Order was finally re¬ 
stored, leaving twenty-six dead in Pittsburgh, where the mob openly 
resisted; thirteen dead and forty-three wounded in Reading, Penn¬ 
sylvania; nineteen dead and more than one hundred wounded in 
Chicago (Brecher, 1-23). Property damage reached about $5 million 
(Walsh, 20). It was subsequent to these upheavals that the huge 
National Guard Armories were constructed in the heart of America’s 
big cities (Josephson, 365). A decade later, a new depression triggered 
another, even greater, uprising of workers, and again the strikes were 
broken with the aid of police and militia, justified this time by the 
Haymarket bombing incident. 

The scenario was reenacted again in the depression of the 1890s 
when wage cuts and rising unemployment in manufacturing and 
transportation precipitated strikes involving some 750,000 workers, 
primarily in steel, in mining, and in the railroad industry. In Penn¬ 
sylvania, the governor called out 7,000 troops to deal with the 
Homestead steel workers; in Idaho, in the Coeur d’Alene region, 
National Guard and federal troops rounded up all union miners 
and put them in a stockade where they were held for months without 
charges. The Pullman railroad strike of 1894 brought thousands of 
federal troops to Chicago, with the result that an estimated thirty- 
four people were killed, and Eugene Debs was imprisoned. Subse¬ 
quently, the federal government stationed marshals in numerous 
railroad centers to protect railroad property, at a cost of at least 
$400,000 (Taft and Ross, 290-299; Greenstone, 21). 14 


1* In the period from 1880-1904 the governors of Colorado spent over one million 
dollars for such military actions against workers, financed by the issuance of “insurrec¬ 
tion" bonds (Boyer and Morais, 142 fn). 




104 


Poor People’s Movements 

These statistics almost surely fail to suggest the true magnitude 
of violence by government against workers during this period. One 
contemporary writer, for example, estimated that in the years 
1902-1904 alone, 198 persons were killed and 1,986 injured (cited 
in Taft and Ross, 380). Overall, Taft and Ross were able to identify 
160 occasions on which state and federal troops were called out 
to deal with labor agitations. As Eugene Debs said after the strike by 
his American Railway Union was crushed by the federal government 
in 1894: 

We have only got a number, and a limited number, of poorly paid 
men in our organization, and when their income ceases they are 
starving. We have no power of the Government behind us. We 
have no recognized influence in society on our side. . . . On the 
other side, the corporations are in perfect alliance; they have all 
the things that money can command, and that means a subsidized 
press, that they are able to control the newspapers, and means a 
false or vitiated public opinion, The clergy almost steadily united 
in thundering their denunciations; then the courts, then the State 
militia, then the Federal troops; everything and all things on 
the side of the corporations (cited in Brecher, 94). 

When the steel strike of 1919 was defeated by United States Steel, 
a report of the Interchurch Commission echoed the judgments of 
Eugene Debs twenty-five years earlier: 

The United States Steel Corporation was too big to be beaten by 
300,000 working men. It had too large a cash surplus, too many 
allies among other businesses, too much support from government 
officers, local and national, too strong influence with social institu¬ 
tions such as the press and the pulpit, it spread over too much 
of the earth—still retaining absolutely centralized control—to be 
defeated by widely scattered workers of many minds, many fears, 
varying states of pocketbook and under a comparatively improvised 
leadership (quoted in Walsh, 56). 

In a handful of instances, government remained neutral or sup¬ 
portive, and that spelled the difference between the success or failure 
of strikes. For example, during the uprisings of the 1890s, while 
federal and state troops were being used to break strikes elsewhere, 
the UMW called a national strike in an effort to organize the central 
competitive coalfields. When two recalcitrant companies in Illinois 
imported scabs whom the striking miners prevented from entering 
the mining areas, Governor John B. Tanner of Illinois sent National 
Guardsmen to avert the threat of violence, but with instructions not 



105 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


to assist the mine owners. Both companies eventually signed with 
the UMW (Taft and Ross, 300-302). 

It is often said that employers in the United States were excep¬ 
tional for the virulence of their opposition to the demands of 
workers. 15 Their opposition is not difficult to understand. But who 
is to say that they would have been successful in the face of large- 
scale strikes had not government on all levels regularly come to 
their aid? 16 In other words, without the power to restrain their 
presidents, their governors, and often their mayors 17 from using 
troops against them, workers remained helpless, stripped of the 
economic power of the strike by the coercive power of government. 18 

That this was so in the nineteenth century was perhaps partly 
because the political power of employers, based on economic power, 
was not yet tempered by the mass numbers of a large industrial class. 
The United States remained predominantly a country of independent 
farmers and proprietors until the Civil War. Moreover, even after 
industrialization had advanced, and even after the number of wage 
workers grew, a rural, small proprietor view of American life, and 
of the role of private property in American life, continued to domi¬ 
nate the political culture. By 1880, wage and salaried employees 
accounted for 62 percent of the labor force, and farmers and small 
proprietors accounted for only 37 percent (Reich, Table 4-J, 175). 
But these numbers were still submerged by a political ideology that, 
by denying the realities of economic concentration, may have 
thwarted the popular emergence of urban, working-class interests, 
at least on the national and state levels. 


15 Nowhere else was the use of blacklists and the employment of private armies, as well 
as the elaborate network of employer espionage and blacklisting services, so highly 
developed. By the end of the nineteenth century, the ranks of Pinkerton agents and 
“reservists" outnumbered the standing army of the nation (Brecher, 55). 

In the Homestead strike of 1889, for example, strikers successfully battled Pinkertons 
and strikebreakers, only then to confront the Pennsylvania National Guard as well as 
legal proceedings which broke the strike (Ash, 122). 

it Gutman argues persuasively that this pattern did not always hold in medium-sized 
industrial cities—in contrast to the large metropolises. In the context of rapid and 
disruptive industrialization, working people in industrial cities were sometimes able 
to mobilize sufficient community support to at least neutralize local government officials 
in industrial conflicts (234-260). 

is “Employers in no other country,” writes Lewis Lorwin, “with the possible exception 
of those in the metal and machine trades of France, have so persistently, so vigorously, 
at such costs, and with such a conviction of serving a cause, opposed and fought trade 
unions as the American employing class. In no other Western country have employers 
been so much aided in their opposition to unions by civil authorities, the armed forces 
of government and their courts ” (emphasis ours, 355). 




106 


Poor People's Movements 

Perhaps a more important factor than American political cul¬ 
ture in accounting for the absence of class-oriented politics was 
the development of political institutions that created the illusion 
of popular participation and influence. Long before an industrial 
working class had developed, American workers were given the 
franchise, in most states by the 1820s. One result was that the 
political alienation to which Bendix ascribes the European working- 
class movements of the nineteenth century did not emerge so 
acutely in the United States, for workers were at least granted the 
vote, the symbol of political influence, and they were included in 
the rituals of political participation as well. Thus artisans reacted 
to the depression of 1828-1831 by forming workingmen’s parties, 
particularly in New York and Philadelphia. 19 They created a stir 
sufficient to produce some concessions, such as the end of imprison¬ 
ment for debt and free public schools. Meanwhile, leaders of the 
workingmen’s party in New York City were inducted into Tammany 
(Pelling, 32-33). These precedents were to be repeated and expanded 
as the working class enlarged. Big city machines were able to win 
and hold the allegiance of workers by absorbing their leaders and 
by conferring favors and symbols that sustained the loyalties of 
workers on individual, neighborhood, and ethnic bases. This not 
only prevented the emergence of industrial workers as a political 
force directed to class issues, but it actually freed political leaders 
on all levels of government to use police, militia, and troops against 
striking workers without jeopardizing working-class electoral support. 

In the 1930s, this pattern was broken and government was forced 
to make accommodations to industrial workers, as industrial workers. 
Staughton Lynd puts the change succintly: “Not only in the 1890s 
but equally in the period after World War I, the national govern¬ 
ment smashed emerging industrial unions. In the 1930s the national 
government sponsored them” (Lynd, 1974, 30). 

The structural changes that presaged this new accommodation 
had been proceeding rapidly as industrialization increasingly domi¬ 
nated American life. The transformation was complete and pre¬ 
cipitate. In 1860 the United States ranked behind England, France, 
and Germany in the value of its manufacturing products; by 1894 
the United States was not only in the lead, but its manufacturing 
products nearly equaled those of England, Germany, and France to- 


10 Ash reports sixty-one workingmen’s parties during this period. 




107 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


gether (Gutman, 33). In the next few years, concentration proceeded 
apace, as mergers and consolidation resulted in the creation of cor¬ 
porations with billions of dollars in assets. By 1904 the top 4 percent 
of American concerns produced 57 percent of the total value of 
industrial products (Weinstein, 1). And by 1910 overall investment 
in manufacturing had increased twelve-fold over 1860 (Brecher, xii). 

As a result, the number of workers employed in industry also 
increased to about 40 percent of the labor force (Reich, Table 4-L, 
178), and these workers were concentrated in ever-larger industrial 
empires. 20 Taken together, these changes set the stage for the suc¬ 
cessful struggles of the 1930s. The advance of industrialization meant 
that when the economic collapse of the 1930s occurred, no sector 
of the economy was insulated, and no sector of the population spared. 
The discontents which galvanized workers also affected virtually the 
entire population, with the result that worker agitations were more 
threatening to political leaders. At the same time the industrial 
working class itself had enlarged, and its role in the economy had 
become more central, so that workers themselves were more menac¬ 
ing when insurgent. But if these structural changes created the pre¬ 
conditions for a political accommodation by government to indus¬ 
trial workers, the change was not to come until the workers them¬ 
selves rose up in defiance with such disruptive effects that they forced 
the hand of the state. 


Depression and the Preconditions 
for Insurgency 

Publicly the White House responded to the crash of 1929 and to 
rapidly mounting unemployment by issuing a steady stream of good 
cheer, declaring that the economy was fundamentally sound and 
that employment was picking up. Privately, however, Hoover was 
apparently less sanguine. In late November he called a conference 
of leading industrialists at which he described the situation as serious, 
and urged industry to help minimize panic by maintaining the 


20 After 1920 the proportion of factory workers in the labor force stabilized, and the 
number of retailing, service, professional, and government workers rose much faster 
(Bernstein, 1970, 55-63). 




108 


Poor People's Movements 

existing level of wages. For the first year, at least, most of the nation’s 
big corporations cooperated, and wages held relatively firm for those 
still working. 

But the depression rapidly worsened to the point that industry 
approached collapse. By 1932 half of all manufacturing units had 
closed down; production fell by 48 percent; reported corporate in¬ 
come fell from $11 billion to $2 billion; the value of industrial and 
railroad stock fell by 80 percent; and the numbers out of work con¬ 
tinued to rise. 21 An estimated 8 million were jobless by the spring 
of 1931, 13.5 million by the end of 1932, and over 15 million, or 
one-third of the work force, in 1933. 

With declining production and widespread unemployment, the 
policy of maintaining wage levels was doomed. Smaller companies 
began to cut wages first. By the fall of 1931, when the net income 
of the nation’s 550 largest industrial corporations had declined by 
68 percent, United States Steel announced a 10 percent wage cut, 
and the rush to cut wages was on. Those still working in the summer 
of 1932 suffered a drop in average weekly earnings from $25.03 to 
$16.73. 22 Wage cuts were more severe in mining and manufacturing 
where unemployment was also worse and less severe among railroad 
workers, but the overall drop in wages, together with unemployment 
and the spread of part-time employment, meant that the income of 
the labor force had been cut in half, from $51 billion in 1929 to 
$26 billion in 1933 (Raybeck, 321). 23 

During these first years of the depression, the distress produced 
by rapidly declining wages remained mainly within private spheres; 
most workers bore the hardships quietly, perhaps made fearful by 
the masses of unemployed at the factory gates. The reluctance of 
elites to acknowledge that much was amiss helped to turn distress 
inward, to keep the disorder of private lives from becoming a public 
issue. But as business conditions worsened, as unemployment spread, 
and as local relief efforts broke down, that began to change. By mid- 
1931, the depression was being acknowledged, helping the grievances 
in private lives to acquire a public meaning and releasing public 


21 U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1941. 

22 U. S. Bureau of the Census, 1941, 340 and 346. 

23 Some groups of workers were especially hard hit. Bernstein cites wage rates in 
Pennsylvania sawmills of five cents an hour, auto companies that paid women four 
cents an hour, and Connecticut sweatshops that paid sixty cents for a fifty-five hour 
week (1970, 319-320). 




109 


The Industrial Workers ' Movement 


indignation. In September 1931, the American Legion announced 
that “the crisis could not be promptly and efficiently met by existing 
political methods.” Theodore Bilbo told an interviewer: “Folks are 
restless. Communism is gaining a foothold. Right here in Mississippi, 
some people are about ready to lead a mob. In fact, I’m getting a 
little pink myself” (Schlesinger, 1957, 204-205). The Republican 
governor of Washington declared: “We cannot endure another winter 
of hardship such as we are now passing through” (Rees, 224). Edward 
F. McGrady of the AFL told the Senate Subcommittee on Manu¬ 
factures: “I say to you gentlemen, advisedly, that if something is not 
done . . . the doors of revolt in this country are going to be thrown 
open” (Bernstein, 1970, 354). Somewhat later, in February 1933, 
Ernest T. Weir, Chairman of the National Steel Corporation, testi¬ 
fied before the Senate Finance Committee: “Practically all the people 
have suffered severely and are worn out not only in their resources, 
but in their patience.” John L. Lewis went further, pronouncing: 
“The political stability of the Republic is imperiled” (Bernstein, 
1971, 15). 

Signs of a pending worker revolt began to appear as well. Despera¬ 
tion strikes to resist wage cuts erupted among textile workers in 
Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In Harlan County, 
miners revolted as bad conditions grew worse, precipitating a sniping 
war between guards and strikers that left several dead. Similar out¬ 
breaks accompanied by violence followed among miners in Arkansas, 
Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia. In April 1932, 150,000 miners in 
southern Illinois went on strike, and by summer the coal-mining 
counties of southern Illinois had become a battleground between 
armies of miners and deputies as thousands of miners descended on 
the still-operating mines to shut them down. 24 In the summer of 
1932, after an outbreak of strikes by unorganized workers in the 
hosiery mills, Governor O. Max Gardner of North Carolina wrote 
a friend: 

This outburst at High Point and Thomasville was almost spontan¬ 
eous and spread like the plague. It only confirms my general feel¬ 
ing that the spirit of revolt is widespread. . . . This thing burst 

forth from the nervous tension of the people who have lost and 


24 When the UMW negotiated a contract accepting a cut in wages, the Illinois miners 
simply turned it down. By late summer 1932 the National Guard established martial 
law in the area (Rees). 




Poor PeoDle’s Movements 


110 


lost and many of whom are now engaged in the battle for the 
bare necessities of life (quoted in Bernstein, 1970, 421-422). 

That summer, hard-pressed farmers in North Dakota, Michigan, 
Indiana, Ohio, New York, and Tennessee armed themselves with 
clubs and pitchforks to prevent the delivery of farm products to 
towns where the prices paid frequently did not cover the costs of 
production. These outbreaks were dangerous portents. 

Still, considering the scale of the calamity that had overtaken 
them, most workers had remained relatively quiescent. Their first 
large-scale expression of discontent was to occur not in the streets, 
but at the polls, in the dramatic electoral realignment of 1932 when 
masses of urban working-class voters turned against the Republican 
Party to vote for a president of “the forgotten man.” 

When Roosevelt took office in the spring of 1933, the scale of 
the catastrophe was apparent to all. Industrial production had sunk 
to a new low and, by the day of the inauguration, every bank in 
America had closed its doors. Once in office, the new administration 
took the initiative, and there was little resistance from a stunned 
nation or a stunned Congress. Clearly the election was a mandate 
to attempt recovery, but economic panic and the electoral upset 
gave Roosevelt a relatively free hand in fashioning his early legisla¬ 
tion. He proceeded to launch a series of measures, each to deal with 
a different facet of the breakdown, and each to cultivate and solidify 
a different constituency: farmers and workers, bankers and business¬ 
men. Farmers got the Agricultural Adjustment Act, rewarding their 
half-century struggle for price supports, cheap credit, and inflated 
currency. The unemployed got the Emergency Relief Act. Business 
and organized labor got the National Industrial Recovery Act 
(NIRA). For business, the NIRA meant the right to limit produc¬ 
tion and fix prices. For working people, the NIRA included codes 
governing wages and hours, and the right to bargain collectively. 
Those provisions were to have an unprecedented impact on the un¬ 
organized working people of the country, not so much for what they 
gave, as for what they promised. The promises were not to be kept, 
at least not at first. But that the federal government had made such 
promises at such a time gave a new spirit and righteousness, and a 
new direction, to the struggles of unorganized workers. 



Ill 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


The Rise of Protest 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was no brinksman; he was trying to build 
and conserve support wherever possible. The NIRA was designed to 
promote economic recovery, and this purpose was as much political 
as economic, for continuing depression spelled continuing political 
disaffection and uncertainty. Moreover the method for recovery was 
also political. The NIRA created a mechanism by which industry 
could regulate production and prices without the constraints of 
antitrust legislation. This was precisely what business leaders them¬ 
selves had been asking for. As early as November 1930 Bernard 
Baruch had called for modification of the antitrust laws and the 
abatement of “uneconomic competition” through business self-regu¬ 
lation under government supervision. In October 1931, the Com¬ 
mittee on Continuity of Business and Employment of the Chamber 
of Commerce had endorsed proposals for industrial planning under 
government sanction. 25 Even the National Association of Manufac¬ 
turers aporoved. 


THE PROMISE OF THE NIRA 

But while the NIRA was designed and implemented to conciliate 
business, it was not meant to offend anyone either, and three passages 
were included to provide reassurance to organized labor. Section 
7(a), written in consultation with the American Federation of Labor, 
required that every industry code or agreement promulgated under 
the statute provide “that employees shall have the right to organize 
and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choos¬ 
ing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint or coercion of 
employers. . . Business was by no means happy with this provi¬ 
sion; the National Association of Manufacturers and the Iron and 
Steel Institute made their opposition clear from the outset. But the 
Chamber of Commerce took a different tack and privately agreed 
with the AFL on an exchange of support (Bernstein, 1971, 32). In 


25 Accounts of these developments can be found in Schlesinger, 1957, 182-183, and 
Bernstein, 1971, 19-20. 




112 


Poor People’s Movements 

other words, some business leaders were reluctantly prepared to 
allow the NIRA to proclaim “the right to organize and bargain col¬ 
lectively’’ in exchange for the very large concessions that business 
gained under the act. In addition, labor was granted sections 7 (b) 
and (c), providing for the regulation of minimum wages and maxi¬ 
mum working hours (to be fixed by collective bargaining agree¬ 
ments where these existed, and by industry codes where they did 
not), and prohibiting the employment of children. 26 

There was in fact considerable precedent for the principles enunci¬ 
ated in the NIRA. The desirability of collective bargaining had been 
endorsed by all twentieth century presidents of the United States 
(Taft and Ross, 387). As early as 1900, a collective bargaining ar¬ 
rangement was made between mine workers and owners in the 
bituminous coalfields, to be followed two years later by a similar 
agreement with the anthracite mine owners, under the prodding of 
their financier-backers and President Theodore Roosevelt (Lescohier 
and Brandeis, xiv-xv). The Railway Labor Act had provided similar 
protections to the Railway Brotherhoods in 1926. These earlier gains 
had, however, turned out to be ephemeral: collective bargaining in 
the coalfields did not last, and the Railway Labor Act turned out 
to be unenforceable in the face of resistance by the carriers. 

But by the early 1930s, as unemployment rose and the destitution 
of the nation’s workers began to seep through to national conscious¬ 
ness, opportunities for more substantial and lasting reform of labor 
law seemed at hand: the Supreme Court handed down a decision 
that overturned decades of court opposition to unionism; the Senate 
refused to confirm the appointment of John J. Parker to the Supreme 
Court because of his earlier support of yellow dog contracts; the 
Norris-LaGuardia Act was passed curbing the right of the courts to 
issue injunctions in labor disputes. The NIRA provisions seemed 
to complete these advances, and William Green, president of the 
American Federation of Labor, announced that millions of workers 


26 The AFL had broken with its traditional opposition to government regulation of 
wages and hours, which it feared would undermine the role of unions, to support 
a thirty-hour bill introduced by Senator Hugo L. Black of Alabama. The Black Bill had 
substantial support in the Congress, but the administration, concerned to win industry 
endorsement, threw its weight behind a substitute calling for a sliding scale, which was 
ultimately incorporated in the National Industrial Recovery Act (Bernstein, 1971, 
22-29). Bernstein points out that in 1929, only 19 percent of manufacturing workers 
were scheduled for less than forty-eight hours a week, a practice which made the United 
States uniquely regressive among industrialized nations (1971, 24). 




113 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


throughout the nation had received a “charter of industrial freedom” 
(Raybeck, 328). But charters are one thing, practical support quite 
another, and there is no evidence at all that the Roosevelt Administra¬ 
tion intended more than the charter. “This is not a law to foment 
discord,” Roosevelt told the public; it was rather the occasion “for 
mutual confidence and help” (quoted in Bernstein, 1971, 172). In 
the context of the dislocations of the depression, however, the char¬ 
ter not only fomented discord, it triggered an industrial war. 


THE SURGE TOWARD UNIONIZATION 

Even before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration, there were 
premonitions that sharp wage cuts and lengthening working hours 
would produce worker protests, as had often happened before. The 
first signs were spreading strikes in the textile mills and the mines, 
industries that had been depressed throughout the 1920s and then 
slumped further with the onset of bad times. 27 It was, however, the 
inauguration of a president who promised to look to the forgotten 
man and the passage of legislation which promised to protect the 
forgotten industrial worker that gave the discontented an £lan, a 
righteousness, that they had not had before. 

The impact on workers was electrifying. It was as if incipient strug¬ 
gles had now been crowned with an aura of what Rude called 
“natural justice.” Felt grievances became public grievances, for the 
federal government itself had declared the workers’ cause to be just. 
There is, for example, the story of a group of workers at the Philco 
radio plant who organized a Walking, Hunting, and Fishing Club 
under the leadership of a twenty-one year old named James Carey, 
and then went to the president of Philco to demand a contract, insist¬ 
ing the NIRA had made collective bargaining a matter of national 
policy. When the Philco official disagreed, the workers promptly 
climbed in a couple of old automobiles and went off to Washington, 
absolutely convinced they would be proven right. 28 In industries 


27 For an account of the battles in the textile mills of the Piedmont, see Bernstein, 1970, 
1-43; for an account of some of the miners’ strikes, see Nyden, 403-468. 

28 As the story is told, they were proven right in this case. The workers hunted down 
Hugh Johnson, head of the National Recovery Administration, established under the 
NIRA, in the Commerce Building, brought back his affirmation in writing, and Philco 
accepted it. But the story is an exception. 




114 


Poor People’s Movements 

that had already been organized, somnolent unions sprang to life. 
The ranks of the United Mine Workers had dwindled in the twenties 
as a result of the decade-long slump in the coal industry, and then 
were almost decimated by the depression. After passage of NIRA, 
John L. Lewis, head of the mine workers, moved into action, com¬ 
mitting the entire UMW treasury and one hundred organizers. Sound 
trucks were dispatched into the coalfields blaring the message, “The 
President wants you to unionize.” Bernstein quotes a UMW organizer 
in June 1933: “These people have been so starved out that they 
are flocking into the Union by the thousands. ... I organized 9 
Locals Tuesday” (1971, 37, 41-42). Within two months, UMW mem¬ 
bership jumped from 60,000 to 300,000 (Thomas Brooks, 163; 
Levinson, 20-21), and paid-up memberships reached 528,685 in 
July 1934 (Derber, 8); the International Ladies Garment Workers 
Union quadrupled its membership, reaching 200,000 in 1934 (Der¬ 
ber, 9); the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, which had reported 
7,000 dues-paying members at its low in 1932, added 125,000 new 
members (Bernstein, 1970, 335). And the Oil Field, Gas Well and 
Refinery Workers Union, which in 1933 claimed only 300 members 
in an industry employing 275,000, established 125 new locals by 
May 1934 (Bernstein, 1971, 109-111). 

In nonunionized industries “there was a virtual uprising of 
workers for union membership,” the executive council of the AFL 
reported to its 1934 convention; “workers held mass meetings and 
sent word they wanted to be organized” (Levinson, 52). The result 
was that almost two hundred local unions with 100,000 members 
sprang up in the automobile industry; about 70,000 joined unions 
in the Akron rubber plants; about 300,000 textile workers joined 
the United Textile Workers of America; and an estimated 50,000 
clamored to join the steel union, organizing themselves in lodges 
named for the promise: “New Deal,” “NRA,” or “Blue Eagle” 
(Levinson, 51—78; Bernstein, 1971, 92-94). Harvey O’Connor, a 
labor newspaperman and former Wobbly, tells how it happened 
in the steel mills: 

So in 1933 along came the New Deal, and then came the NRA, 
and the effect was electric all up and down those valleys. The mills 
began reopening somewhat, and the steel workers read in the news¬ 
papers about this NRA section 7 (a) that guaranteed you the right 
to organize. That was true, and that’s about as far as it went; you 
had the right to organize, but what happened after that was another 
matter. All over the country steel union locals sprang up spon- 



115 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


taneously. . . . These locals sprang up at Duquesne, Homestead and 
Braddock. You name the mill town and there was a Local there, 
carrying a name like the “Blue Eagle” or the “New Deal” Local. . . . 
There was even an “FDR” Local, I think. These people had never 
had any experience with unionism. All they knew was that, by golly, 
the time had come when they could organize and the Government 
guaranteed them the right to organize (Lynd, 1969, 58). 

But the guarantee was not to be kept. Interestingly enough, the first 
obstacles were created by the existing unions themselves, for their 
role at this stage was virtually to destroy the surge toward unionism 
among the mass of unorganized industrial workers. 


THE UNIONS IMPEDE UNIONIZATION 

When the depression struck, the AFL was nearly half a century old. 
It had been formed in the 1880s as a federation of national craft 
unions, and its dominant leaders (aside from William Green, a 
former UMW official) were the presidents of the large craft unions: 
Bill Hutcheson, boss of 300,000 carpenters, who had once hired 
strikebreakers to preserve his rule; Dan Tobin, $20,000-a-year presi¬ 
dent of the teamsters; 29 John Frey, aging head of the aging molders; 
Matthew Woll, of the photoengravers. The membership of the AFL 
reached a peak of about 5 million in 1920, when the unions could 
claim to represent 17 percent of the American work force (Mills, 
53), then fell off during the depression of 1921, and stood still dur¬ 
ing the apparent prosperity of the twenties. The oligarchs, their 
positions well-secured, were not much perturbed. At the turn of the 
century the AFL had become closely allied with the National Civic 
Federation, representing the big financiers and businessmen who 
sought a “reasonable” cooperation of labor and capital. During the 
1920s, this rapprochment with industry became virtually complete. 
Matthew Woll, an AFL vice-president, became the acting president 
of the National Civic Federation, and the AFL reversed its historic 
opposition to scientific management, resolved that increases in wages 
should be linked to increases in productivity, stressed union-manage- 


29 David Dubinsky was notable among AFL chieftains because his salary remained a 
relatively modest $7,500 a year. 




116 


Poor People's Movements 

ment cooperation, 30 and undertook a campaign to purge communist 
influences in its member unions. Strike activities virtually ceased. 
Meanwhile, the mass of industrial workers remained unorganized. 

With the depression, however, union membership sank to a new 
low of 2,126,000 or about 9 percent of the work force, 31 and at 
first the clamor of rank-and-file industrial workers begging for unioni¬ 
zation seemed to arouse the enthusiasm of the AFL leadership. Presi¬ 
dent William Green described section 7(a) as a “Magna Charta” for 
labor and boasted that membership would reach 10 million, and 
then 25 million. The AFL slogan would be, he proclaimed, “Organize 
the Unorganized in the Mass Production Industries/' 

But this was not to happen, and there were several reasons why. 
One was the predominance in the AFL structure of the large craft 
unions, for whom jurisdictional preoccupations were paramount. 
The workers who, with good faith and enthusiasm, were rushing to 
join unions, were assigned to what were called federal locals in 
the AFL structure. In the second half of 1933, after the passage 
of the NIRA, the AFL received 1,205 applications for federal local 
charters and granted 1,006 (Bernstein, 1971, 355). In deference to 
the jurisdictional claims of the craft unions, these locals were con¬ 
sidered temporary bodies, and were denied voting rights in AFL 
councils (although the dues of the federal locals went far toward 
supporting the central AFL organs, for they were not siphoned off 
by the big affiliated unions). Moreover, ostensibly because they were 
organized on a plant basis and not by craft, 32 it was understood that 
the members of federal locals would ultimately be divided up among 
the craft unions who staked out their jurisdictional claims, some¬ 
times splitting the newly organized workers in a factory among as 
many as fifteen or twenty different unions, with the result that they 
were hopelessly divided among competing organizations and in¬ 
capable of action. 

Whatever the difficulties it caused, the effort of the big craft unions 
to claim the new unionists for themselves was natural enough. But 
even this was done half-heartedly; to the oligarchs of the AFL, the 


30 A few union-management cooperation schemes to raise productivity were introduced 
but the main significance of this posture was rhetorical. See Nadworny. 

31 Union membership figures are necessarily estimates. For a discussion of difficulties in 
estimation see Derber, 3-7. 

32 The craft basis of AFL union organization had in fact resulted in a convoluted 
jurisdictional maze determined not so much by craft as by power struggles among the 
member unions. 




117 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


new members spelled trouble. These leaders maintained their pre¬ 
eminence on the basis of the members whose allegiance they claimed 
and on whose apathy they could count. It was one thing to boast 
of organizing ten million of the unorganized, but quite another to 
welcome masses of unsettling newcomers either into existing organi¬ 
zations made secure by stasis, or even worse, into new and competi¬ 
tive unions within the AFL structure. In October 1933 a convention 
of the AFL Metal Trades Department denounced the AFL leader¬ 
ship for chartering federal unions, asserting that “this condition, if 
allowed to continue, will completely demoralize, if not actually 
destroy, the various international unions’ charter and jurisdictional 
rights” (Levinson, 54). 

Moreover, the oligarchs were accustomed not only to internal 
stability, but to external conciliation, and the signs of militancy 
among the unorganized suggested a mode of conflict that had become 
distasteful to many of the AFL leaders. Bill Collins, an AFL repre¬ 
sentative, sent to win the auto workers to the AFL banner in the 
face of a trend toward independent unionism, told the auto manu¬ 
facturers, “I never voted for a strike in my life” (Fine, 69). Finally, 
there was the age-old contempt for the unskilled, which served to 
justify the organizational preoccupations of the AFL leadership. 
Collins is said to have confided to Norman Thomas, “My wife can 
always tell from the smell of my clothes what breed of foreigners 
I’ve been hanging out with” (Levinson, 60). 33 Tobin, leader of the 
teamsters, wrote during the crest of the NIRA agitations: “The 
scramble for admittance to the union is on. We do not want to 
charter the riff-raff or good-for nothings, or those for whom we 
cannot make wages or conditions. . . . We do not want the men 
today if they are going on strike tomorrow (Levinson, 13-14). 

The actions of Michael F. Tighe, president of the Amalgamated 
Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, representing in 1933 
some 50,000 skilled men in a steel industry employing some half 
million workers, are an example. Tighe had helped to break the 
1919 steel strike by signing an agreement for his handful of skilled 
workers while the bulk of the steel workers were still out on strike. 


33 In a similar spirit, Harry McLauglin, executive secretary of the Cleveland Federation 
of Labor, told a group of auto workers who came to seek help in organizing the White 
Motors Company in Cleveland in 1932 that “no one can organize that bunch of hunkies 
out there” (Prickett, 159). One of those auto workers was Wyndham Mortimer, who 
became one of the key organizers of the United Automobile Workers. 




118 


Poor People’s Movements 

Now, as men rushed to join his union, he seemed at first more 
confused than anything else, then condemned the walkouts by new 
unionists at two steel works, denounced a committee set up by the 
rank and file to organize strike machinery, and finally simply expelled 
75 percent of his new members. Meanwhile, to show his good 
intentions, Tighe sent a letter to the steel mill owners asking them 
to lend an ear to the workers asking for recognition, assuring 
them he had “only one purpose, that of advancing the interests of 
both employer and employee.” The letter was not answered (Levin¬ 
son, 68-72). By the summer of 1935, Tighe reported a total mem¬ 
bership of 8,600 in the entire steel industry. 

Similarly, the new rubber unions, concentrated in Akron, found 
their members divided between nineteen craft locals (Schlesinger, 
1958, 355). Demoralized, their membership fell from a peak of 
about 70,000 in 1934 to 22,000. The ranks of the auto unions shrank 
from an estimated 100,000 to 20,000, or 5 percent of the more than 
400,000 workers in the industry. The United Textile Workers of 
America, having reached a membership of 300,000 in the summer of 
1934, claimed only 79,200 members by August 1935. The Union of 
Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, a descendant of the militant 
Western Federation of Miners, had gained 49,000 recruits under a 
new young leadership. With no AFL organizers in sight, they called 
a strike in May 1934 and 6,600 men walked out at the Anaconda 
Copper Mine Company in Butte and Great Falls. The AFL Build¬ 
ings and Metal Trades Department arrived on the scene and nego¬ 
tiated a settlement for 600 craftsmen, soon to be divided among six¬ 
teen craft unions, and the strike was scuttled (Bernstein, 1971, 106— 
109). By summer 1935, membership in the Mine, Mill, and Smelter 
Workers was down to 14,000 (Levinson, 78). 

After a debacle at the AFL convention in the fall of 1935 over 
the issue of the industrial unionism, John L. Lewis and several other 
union leaders withdrew to form the Committee for Industrial Organi¬ 
zation—later to split with the AFL and declare itself the Congress 
of Industrial Organizations. It included the small federal auto and 
rubber worker locals which had reluctantly been granted industrial 
charters by the AFL in 1934, but charters so hedged in as to protect 
the claims of the craft unions and the authority of the AFL leader¬ 
ship. Like the AFL, the CIO leaders announced they would “encour¬ 
age and promote organization of the workers in the mass-production 
and unorganized industries of the nation” (Levinson, 119). What 
they would do, however, still remained to be seen. 



119 


The Industrial Workers ' Movement 


Men and women had flocked to the unions, to the promise of 
labor power through organization. They had handed over the high 
dues that the AFL demanded of its federal locals and then found 
themselves confused by the jurisdictional tangles their leaders im¬ 
posed on them, and discouraged by the moderation and conciliation 
their leaders demanded of them. At this stage, organization failed, 
and perhaps for that reason, the workers’ movement grew. 


INDUSTRY RESISTS UNIONIZATION 

Whatever the reluctance the AFL leadership showed in dealing 
with the mass of unorganized industrial workers, they at least ap¬ 
plauded the promises the NIRA made to labor. Employers took a 
different view. They had allowed the promises to be made grudg¬ 
ingly, in return for the concessions that the NIRA provided to busi¬ 
ness, and they had no intention of seeing the promises fulfilled. 

The less controversial of the legislative concessions to labor had 
been the provisions governing wages and hours but, since employers 
dominated the code authorities that fixed minimum wages and maxi¬ 
mum hours for each industry, these provisions were also the more 
easily undermined in practice. Some codes simply neglected to men¬ 
tion minimum wages. Where the codes did specify wages and hours, 
particular manufacturers easily gained exemptions by pointing out 
the peculiar conditions obtaining in their industry or business, while 
others used the “stretch-out” to evade standards. Nevertheless, there 
were some improvements overall after the passage of the legislation 
and the establishment of the National Recovery Administration; 34 
average hours of labor per week declined from 43.3 to 37.8, and 
average annual earnings in manufacturing, mining, and construction 
increased from $874 in 1933 to $1,068 in 1935 (Raybeck, 332). 

From the outset industry had viewed section 7 (a), which pre¬ 
sumably gave workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, 
as the more serious threat, and industry leaders moved quickly to 
emasculate the provision. Some corporations flatly prohibited unioni¬ 


se In some industries, notably textiles, the codes provided a vehicle through which the 
industry could place a floor under intense competitive wage-slashing and price-slashing. 
And in textiles, the codes were more effective; average weekly earnings rose from $10.90 
to $13.03, and hours dropped sharply, from forty-six to thirty-three (Walsh, 145). 




120 


Poor People's Movements 

zation; many more began to set up “employee representation” plans. 
These plans, or company unions, had become popular in the 1920s, 
and by 1928 an estimated 1.5 million workers were included (Pelling, 
146). But between 1933 and 1935, new company plans proliferated. 35 
As the demand for unionization escalated despite these devices, com¬ 
panies began to maintain blacklists and simply fired known union 
members by the thousands, despite the ostensible protections afforded 
by section 7 (a). And increasingly, in the face of the upsurge of worker 
militancy, employers resorted to the techniques of violence and 
espionage, to barbed-wire fences and sandbag fortifications, to well- 
armed and well-financed “Citizen Associations,” to special deputies 
and the massive use of labor spies. 36 Subsequent testimony before a 
subcommitte of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, 
chaired by Senator La Follette, indicated that American industry 
had hired 3,781 labor spies between 1933-1937 (Raybeck, 344); 37 the 
cost of anti-union agents in 1936 alone was put at $80 million 
(Thomas Brooks, 164). 


THE STRUGGLE ESCALATES 

If industry leaders were not satisfied with the compromises of the 
New Deal, neither were the rank and file of labor. The right to 
organize and join a union had given the workers hope, and un- 


35 A National Industrial Conference Board sample found that of 623 company union 
plans in effect in November 1933 in manufacturing and mining, some 400 had been 
instituted after the passage of the NIRA. A broader industry survey by the Bureau of 
Labor Statistics found a similar percentage (Bernstein, 1971, 39-40). 

36 These practices had been popularized by industry in the early 1920s under the official 
designation of the “American Plan.” The “Plan” included the systematic use of black¬ 
lists, labor spies, injunctions, and propaganda. In 1936 the “Mohawk Valley Formula,” 
developed by Remington Rand to successfully break a strike, further systematized 
employer techniques by including denunciation of labor leaders as dangerous radicals, 
use of police to break up labor meetings, massive propaganda in the local community, 
and the organization of vigilante “citizen” committees to protect strikebreakers (Bern¬ 
stein, 1970, 148-151; 1971, 478-479; Raybeck, 343-344; Walsh, 216-228). 

37 Walsh lists some of the corporations known to employ labor spy agencies: Chrysler, 
General Motors, Quaker Oats, Wheeling Steel, Great Lakes Steel, Firestone Tire and 
Rubber, Post Telegraph and Cable, Radio Corporation of America, Bethlehem Steel, 
Campbell Soup, Curtis Publishing Company, Baldwin Locomotive Works, Montgomery 
Ward, Pennsylvania Railroad, Goodrich Rubber, Aluminum Company of America, 
Consolidated Gas, Frigidaire, Carnegie Steel, National Dairy Products, and Western 
Union (206-207). 




121 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


leashed their discontent. 38 But unionization had so far been a failed 
cause, resisted by employers, fumbled by AFL leaders, and worn 
away in government procedures that led nowhere. The number of 
unionized workers again plummeted to a historic low by 1935, 
accounting for only 9.5 percent of the labor force (Mills, 53). How¬ 
ever, while union membership was falling, worker militancy was 
rising. During the spring and summer of 1934 strikes spread and, 
as they escaped the control of established union leaders, became more 
unpredictable. Three times as many workers struck in 1933 after 
NIRA as in 1932; the number of industrial disputes reported by 
the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics rose from 841 in 1932 to 1,695 
in 1933, 39 and then to 1,856 in 1934 when a million and a half 
workers were involved in strikes (Millis and Montgomery, 692, 700- 
701). With employer resistance also mounting, many of the strikes 
culminated in large-scale battles. 

The first of these was the “Battle of Toledo/’ Toledo had been 
devastated by the depression. Its main plant was Willys-Overland, 
which produced 42,000 cars in March 1929 and employed 28,000 
people. In a matter of months, production was cut back; by spring of 
1932, Willys employed only 3,000 people (Keeran, 63). Meanwhile 
the auto parts industry in Toledo was also hard hit, with the result 
that unemployment in the city was high, and the wages of those 
still working were below the NIRA code minimum. Early in 1934, 
demands for union recognition at the Electric Auto-Lite Company 
and several smaller firms were rejected, and 4,000 workers walked 
out. The workers returned to the plants after federal officials secured 
a commitment from the employers to “set up a machinery” for 
negotiations. But Auto-Lite then refused to negotiate, and a second 
strike was called on April 11. Only a minority of the workers joined 
the walkout this time, however, and the company determined to keep 
its plant open, hiring strikebreakers to reach full production. 

Toledo was a stronghold of A. J. Muste’s radical Unemployed 
Leagues, and the Musteites rapidly mobilized large numbers of un- 


38 The proportion of strikes involving the issue of union recognition rose from 19 
percent in 1932 to 45.9 percent in 1934. Union recognition continued to be an issue in 
about half the reported work stoppages until 1942, according to Bureau of Labor 
Statistics sources cited by Bernstein (1950, 143, 144). 

39 Measured another way, the man-days lost due to strikes increased from a maximum 
of 603,000 in any month in 1933 before the NIRA became law in June, to 1,375,000 in 
July, and to 2,378,000 in August, so that 1933 ended with more labor stoppages than had 
occurred at any time since 1921 (Bernstein, 1971, 173). 




122 


Poor People’s Movements 

employed workers to reinforce the picket lines. On April 17 the 
company responded by obtaining a court order limiting picketing 
and prohibiting league members from picketing altogether. But 
the Musteites decided to violate the restraining order, and some local 
Communists joined in with the slogan “Smash the Injunction by 
Mass Picketing” (Keeran, 168). A handful of militants then began 
picketing. They were quickly arrested, but upon their release, they 
returned to the picket lines, their numbers now enlarged by workers 
emboldened by the militants’ example. More arrests and further 
court injunctions seemed to only galvanize the strikers, and the num¬ 
bers of people on the picket lines grew larger day by day. Sympathy 
for the strikers in Toledo was such that the sheriff could not use 
the local police to protect the strikebreakers and instead deputized 
special police, paid for by Auto-Lite. 

By May 23, the crowd massed outside the plant had grown to 
some 10,000 people, effectively imprisoning the 1,500 strikebreakers 
inside the factory. The sheriff then decided to take the initiative, and 
the deputies attacked. The crowd fought back, several people were 
seriously wounded, and a contingent of the Ohio National Guard 
was called in. Armed with machine guns and bayonetted rifles, the 
Guardsmen marched into the Auto-Lite plant in the quiet of dawn 
and succeeded in evacuating the strikebreaking workers. But the 
next day, the crowd gathered again, advanced on the Guardsmen, 
showering them with bricks and bottles. On the third advance, the 
Guard fired into the crowd, killing two and wounding many more. 
The crowd still did not disperse. Four more companies of Guards¬ 
men were called up, and Auto-Lite agreed to close the plant. 
Then, with the threat of a general strike in the air, the employers 
finally agreed to federal mediation which resulted in a 22 percent 
wage increase and limited recognition for the union. 40 

The next scene of battle was Minneapolis. The city had always 
been a stronghold of the open shop, vigilantly enforced by an em¬ 
ployers’ “Citizens’ Alliance” formed in 1908 to prevent unionization 
by means of stool pigeons, espionage, propaganda, and thugs. During 
1933, when a third of the work force in Minneapolis was unem¬ 
ployed and the wages of those still working had been cut, a handful 
of local Trotskyist militants—members of the Socialist Workers 
Party—gained control of Teamsters Local 574 and began to sign 


40 Accounts of the Toledo events can be found in Keeran, 164-172; Bernstein, 1971, 
218-228; Brecher, 158-161; and Taft and Ross, 252. 




123 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


workers up. After an initial victory in the coal yards, the local began 
to organize the truck drivers and helpers. But Minneapolis business¬ 
men, alerted by worker agitation elsewhere in the country, were 
prepared for a showdown. When Local 574 presented its demands 
to the trucking employers, the Citizens’ Alliance stepped in and 
promised to smash the strike. The union’s demands were summarily 
rejected. 

Mediation efforts by the Regional Labor Board were fruitless and, 
on May 15, 1934, the strike was on. The alliance promptly swore in 
155 “special officers,’’ prompting workers in Minneapolis to rally 
behind the truck drivers, many of them by going on strike them¬ 
selves. Both sides established military headquarters and armed their 
men. Pickets roved through the city in bands, some on motorcycles, 
seeing to it that no trucks moved. On May 21, after the police threat¬ 
ened to move trucks, the first battle broke out between the two 
armies. Thirty of the vastly outnumbered police were injured in 
the hand-to-hand fighting that ensued. The next day, a crowd of 
20,000 gathered, fighting broke out again, and two special deputies 
were killed, some fifty wounded. With workers virtually in control 
of the city, and with the first families of Minneapolis in panic, the 
sense of impending class war grew. 

At this point, Governor Olson managed to force a temporary truce. 
Negotiations proceeded, but the ambiguously worded agreement 
which resulted soon broke down, and both sides again began prepara¬ 
tions for battle. After mediation efforts by federal representatives 
were rejected by the employers, who apparently hoped to force the 
Governor to bring in the National Guard to break the strike, the 
workers struck again. At the next confrontation between the two 
camps, police wounded sixty-seven workers and killed two. Gov¬ 
ernor Olson then intervened in earnest, declaring martial law and 
raiding the headquarters of both camps. The trucking employers 
finally accepted a federal plan that, within two years, led to collective 
bargaining agreements with 500 Minneapolis employers (Bernstein, 
1971, 229-252; Schlesinger, 1958, 385-389). Meanwhile, Daniel 
Tobin, international president of the Teamsters, had refused his 
support to the workers, denouncing the strike leadership as “reds” 
(Karsh and Garman, 99). 41 


4i Seven years later Tobin instigated the government prosecution of leaders of the 
Socialist Workers Party under the Smith Act in an effort to destroy the leadership of 
the Minneapolis local of the Teamsters (Lens, 230-231). 




124 


Poor People's Movements 

In San Francisco, longshoremen encouraged by section 7(a) were 
flocking into the International Longshoremen’s Association. Their 
special grievance was the “shape-up” hiring system which left them 
at the mercy of the foremen, never able to count on a day’s work. 
But the ILA leaders made no effort to challenge the shape-up, and 
a rank-and-file movement developed, led by a small caucus of Com¬ 
munists and other radicals, including Harry Bridges. 42 At a meeting 
in February 1934 the rank and file forced union officials to demand 
a union hiring hall or threaten to strike in two weeks. Roosevelt had 
been warned that the waterfront bosses wanted a showdown, that 
any money they might lose in a dock strike would be more than 
worth it if the union was destroyed (Schlesinger, 1958, 390). A fed¬ 
eral mediating team worked out a compromise that provided some 
degree of union recognition, but did not give the union control of 
the hiring hall. Joseph Ryan, president of the ILA, accepted. But 
local leaders, pressed by the rank and file, spurned the plan, and the 
strike was on. 

Employers imported large numbers of strikebreakers, but rank- 
and-file teamsters refused to haul goods to and from the docks 
and some even joined the picket lines. On May 10 the Communist-led 
Maritime Workers Industrial Union joined the strike, prodding 
AFL maritime unions to do the same, so that the strike soon spread 
to include most maritime workers (Weinstein, 64-67). From the 
first day the police tried to break the strike by force, and the pickets 
fought back. After forty-five days, the San Francisco business com¬ 
munity decided that the port had to be opened and 700 policemen 
prepared to storm the picket lines. When the battle was over, twenty- 
five people were hospitalized. Several days later, on July 5, the police 
again charged crowds of pickets who had gathered to stop strike¬ 
breakers. This time, 115 people were hospitalized, two strikers were 
killed, and 1,700 National Guardsmen marched into San Francisco 
to restore order. The funeral procession for the slain strikers was 
transformed into an awesome political statement by the working 
people of San Francisco. A writer who observed the occasion de¬ 
scribed it: 


42 This group was really a spin-off of the small and militant Maritime Workers 
Industrial Union, organized by Communists. The MWIU began to organize San Fran¬ 
cisco longshoremen in 1932, but after section 7 (a) was enacted, and the rush to join 
the union was on, it was the old International Longshoremen’s Association into which 
longshoremen flooded, and with them went the group of radicals from the MWIU 
(Weinstein, 64-66). 




125 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


In solid ranks, eight to ten abreast, thousands of strike sympathizers. 

. . . Tramp-tramp-tramp. No noise except that. The band with its 
muffled drums and somber music. . . . On the marchers came— 
hour after hour—ten, twenty, thirty thousand of them. ... A solid 
river of men and women who believed they had a grievance and 
who were expressing their resentment in this gigantic demonstra¬ 
tion (Charles G. Norris, quoted by Bernstein, 1971, 281-282). 

In the upswell of anger and sympathy, the momentum for a general 
strike grew. By July 12 some twenty unions had voted to strike, 
and Hugh Johnson announced a “civil war” in San Francisco. But 
the strike folded after four days, undermined by the local AFL 
Central Labor Council that had been forced to take on the leader¬ 
ship of a general strike of which it wanted no part. Once the 
general strike collapsed, the longshoremen had no choice but to 
accept arbitration, with the result that hiring halls jointly operated 
by the union and employers were established. In the interim William 
Green of the AFL had himself denounced the San Francisco general 
strike (Brecher, 154-157). 

The textile strike that erupted across the nation in the summer 
of 1934 took on the character of a crusade as “flying squadrons” 
of men and women marched from one southern mill town to another, 
calling out the workers from the mills to join the strike. By Septem¬ 
ber, 375,000 textile workers were on strike. Employers imported 
armed guards who, together with the National Guard, kept the 
mills open in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas 
(Bernstein, 1971, 298-311). Before it was over, the head of a local 
union in Alabama had been shot, his aides beaten; Governor Tal- 
madge of Georgia declared martial law and set up a detention camp 
for an estimated 2,000 strikers; fifteen strikers were killed, six of them 
when the sheriff’s deputies clashed with a flying squadron in Honea 
Path, South Carolina; riots broke out in Rhode Island, Connecticut, 
and Massachusetts and National Guardsmen were on duty across 
New England; and the trade journal Fibre and Fabric pontificated 
that “a few hundred funerals will have a quieting influence.” 43 

During that same summer, deputies killed two strikers and injured 
thirty-five others when the Kohler Company in the “model” com- 


43 These outbreaks are described in Schlesinger, 1958, 394; Brecher, 168-176; Levinson, 
73-74; Taft and Ross, 354. 




126 


Poor People's Movements 

pany town of Kohler Village, Wisconsin, refused to bargain with 
the union (Taft and Ross, 352). All in all, a minimum of fifteen 
strikers were killed in 1933, and at least forty more were killed in 
1934. In a period of eighteen months, troops had been called out 
in sixteen states (Levinson, 56-57). 


The State on the Horns of the 
Industrial Dilemma 

As worker demands escalated, industry resistance escalated to match, 
and each side repeatedly called on federal authorities to mediate. 
At first, the policy of conciliating business prevailed, but concilia¬ 
tion grew more and more difficult as workers became more militant. 

The automobile industry is an example. Before the NIRA went 
into effect, there was virtually no union organization among auto¬ 
mobile workers. 44 After the NIRA, workers joined the AFL federal 
locals, independent unions began to appear, and a series of strikes 
broke out in the summer of 1933. Meanwhile, the National Industrial 
Recovery Administration had, as in other industries, ceded the 
initiative in formulating automobile codes to the owners of the 
industry. 45 The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce in 
effect became the auto industry code authority (Levinson, 57). The 
wages and hours code which auto industrialists submitted and which 
the president signed called for hourly rates ranging between forty- 
one and forty-three cents and a work week ranging from thirty-five 


** A small Communist-led union did exist, the Auto Workers Union. The AWU had 
claimed some 23,000 members in 1918, but it was ejected from the AFL for refusing to 
drop its jurisdictional claims to all the workers in the auto industry, and then was 
decimated by the open shop drive in the early 1920s. It was at that point that Com¬ 
munist activity in the union began and, while the union never gained many members, 
it did serve an important agitational and supportive role in the defensive strikes of the 
late 1920s and again in 1932-1933 (Keeran, 4-17; 43-48; 89-103). 

* 5 Edelman points out: ‘‘Industry enjoyed the huge advantage of initiative as well 
as economic power in code formulation. Trade associations usually prepared the first 
drafts of codes and were highly influential in the discussion of adjustments in them at 
hearings. NRA deputy administrators who presided at the hearings were largely drawn 
from industry, giving management a further advantage when its position conflicted with 
that of unions or workers. Some NRA officials and unions tried to secure equal repre¬ 
sentation for labor representatives on code authorities, but voting membership for labor 
representatives was granted in only twenty-three cases and non-voting membership in 
twenty-eight” (166). 




127 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


to forty-eight hours, but labor leaders claimed those standards were 
widely violated. The provision designed by the industry to demon¬ 
strate observance of section 7 (a) came to be known as the “merit 
clause.” It specified that “employers in this industry may exercise 
their right to select, retain, or advance employees on the basis of 
individual merit, without regard to their membership or non-mem¬ 
bership in any organization” (Levinson, 57-58). Under this clause 
companies began to discharge unionists in the fall of 1933. At the 
same time General Motors rushed through a series of company union 
elections and announced that it would not recognize or enter into 
a contract with any independent union on behalf of its employees. 
Each time the code was extended—in December 1933, in September 
1934, and in February 1935—labor leaders protested vehemently, 
but to little avail, excepting that the president appointed a labor 
advisory board and also ordered a survey of wages and unemploy¬ 
ment in the automobile industry. 

Agitation among the auto workers continued. In March 1934, 
when workers in several GM plants were threatening to strike. 
President Roosevelt called industry and labor representatives to a 
meeting at the White House. The resulting peace agreement estab¬ 
lished the principle of proportional representation. Employees in a 
plant would be divided among company unions and various inde¬ 
pendent unions for collective bargaining purposes. Roosevelt called 
the plan “the framework for a new structure of industrial relations”; 
the president of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan, said, “All’s well 
that ends well”; and William Green concurred, heralding a labor 
victory. But experience suggested that it was a plan for dividing 
workers against each other. The New York Times correspondent 
wrote that “organized labor’s drive for a greater equality of bargain¬ 
ing power with industry has been nullified.” 46 

Similar stratagems were followed in the textile industry. Codes 
governing wages and hours were undermined by stretchouts that 
greatly increased the workload. Despite the supposed protections of 
section 7(a), thousands of unionists were fired, and the Cotton 
National Textile Industrial Relations Board disposed of worker 
complaints simply by referring them to the industry’s Textile Insti¬ 
tute. Meanwhile the NRA sanctioned an industry-wide cut in produc- 


46 New Deal efforts to keep peace in the auto industry are described in Fine, 31; Levin¬ 
son, 57-62; Bernstein, 1971, 182-185. 




128 


Poor People’s Movements 

tion which reduced employment and wages still further. The in¬ 
evitable strike was temporarily averted when the NRA promised a 
survey and a seat on the Textile Board for the United Textile 
Workers. When the strike finally erupted in the summer of 1934 the 
president intervened by appointing a new Textile Labor Relations 
Board to study workloads in the industry, while the Department of 
Labor would survey wages, and the Federal Trade Commission would 
assess the capacity of the industry to increase hours and employment 
(Brecher, 176). United Textile Workers leaders called off the walk¬ 
out, claiming a victory. 47 The strikers returned to the mills only 
to find that thousands of their numbers were barred from reemploy¬ 
ment and evicted from their company houses by the mill owners. 48 

In the steel industry, the National Labor Board, pressed by strikes 
in Weirton and Clairton, finally ordered an employee election 
but the employers refused to abide by the order. When handed the 
case, the Department of Justice refused to act. Later, when the 
companies were laying in supplies of tear gas, bullets, and sub¬ 
machine guns to defend against unionists, rank and filers went to 
Washington to see the president, who was away on a cruise. This 
time the workers rejected the offer of the NRA chief, General Hugh 
Johnson (who proposed the appointment of a board to hear their 
grievances), and instead wrote the president that they thought it 
“useless to waste any more time in Washington on the ‘National Run 
Around’ ” (Levinson, 70). 

But while the federal government was conciliating businessmen 
through this period, it was also showing an unprecedented concern 
and restraint in dealing with labor. “To an extraordinary extent at 
this time,” writes Bernstein, “the laboring people of the United 
States looked to the federal government and especially to Roosevelt 
for leadership and comfort” (1971, 170). In the uncertain climate 
of the time, however, labor support could not simply be taken for 
granted. Accordingly, Roosevelt attempted to appease demands by 
workers; even the unfilled promises and evasive studies of the NRA 
were an effort at appeasement and a sharp contrast with the court 


47 This was the second outbreak in the mills in only four years, and the second sellout 
by the AFL. In 1929, when a spontaneous strike spread across the Piedmont, the AFL 
had responded with a speaking tour by President Green in which he appealed to the 
mill owners to deal with organized labor (Bernstein, 1970, 11-43). 

48 New Deal maneuverings in textiles are described in Levinson, 73-76; Raybeck, 331; 
Bernstein, 1971, 300-304. 




129 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


injunctions and federal troops of an earlier era. As complaints from 
labor leaders over violations of 7 (a) became more bitter, the National 
Labor Board was established to settle employer-worker disputes. 
Senator Robert F. Wagner, an ally of labor, was appointed chairman 
and the NLB became an advocate of the right to organize and of 
the principle of collective bargaining. Despite some initial successes, 
the NLB lacked legal authority and could do nothing when employers 
simply defied it, as happened in several major cases in late 1933. In 
February 1934 the NLB, which had been authorized mainly to hold 
discussions, was empowered to conduct employee elections and, later 
in 1934, a resolution sponsored by Wagner led to the reorganization 
of the board into the National Labor Relations Board. None of these 
changes proved very effective in the face of employer resistance, 
particularly since the Department of Justice showed considerable 
reluctance to prosecute cases referred to it by the board. Even in 
election cases, where the NLRB had clear authority, employers 
delayed compliance and stalled in the courts. By March 1935 none 
of the cases referred to the Department of Justice had resulted in a 
judgment (Bernstein, 1971, 320-322). 

But with industrial war escalating, the policies of conciliating busi¬ 
ness while placating labor could not last. The administration could 
not ignore the battles that were raging between industry and labor, 
if only because industrial peace was essential for recovery. And once 
entangled, it could not take sides without alienating one camp or 
the other. When strikes and riots broke out in the coal mines con¬ 
trolled by the steel companies (known as the “captive” mines) in 
the summer of 1933, Hugh Johnson forced a settlement to which 
Lewis agreed but which the miners themselves rejected. The steel 
industry and the UMW were soon locked in conflict, the New York 
Times reported 100,000 miners on strike, and negotiations under the 
auspices of the NRA were leading nowhere. With coke stocks danger¬ 
ously low, the steel executives finally insisted on the president’s inter¬ 
vention. But whatever they expected from this intervention, the 
resulting agreement hardly pleased them. In fact, none of the corpora¬ 
tions abided by its terms until the disputes were referred to the 
NLB, with the result that a modified collective bargaining agree¬ 
ment was reached in many of the captive mines (Bernstein, 1971, 
49-61). 

Nor could the administration stay aloof from the battles of 1934 
in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, in which the business 
community was stiffly opposed to worker demands, and to federal 



130 


Poor People’s Movements 

proposals for settlement. Once involved, federal arbitrators, faced 
with unprecedented labor uprisings, did not side with the workers, 
but they did not side with employers either. That was enough to 
prove the undoing of the policy of business conciliation. 

Although most businessmen had supported Hoover in 1932, at 
least some prominent leaders among them had endorsed Roosevejt, 
and others quickly joined when Roosevelt reopened the banks, cut 
government spending, and legalized beer within a month of taking 
office. As for the NIRA, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce itself had 
endorsed “the philosophy of a planned economy” before the election, 
and in 1933 its delegates gave Roosevelt a standing ovation. Mean¬ 
while, at least partly thanks to the privileges granted industry under 
the NIRA codes, overall business conditions were improving. By the 
spring of 1934 the index of industrial production had picked up 
sharply, particularly in industries covered by the codes. Industry 
leaders regained their confidence and, as they did, became increas¬ 
ingly disgruntled with the turmoil set in motion in their own house 
by the New Deal labor policy. Just prior to the congressional elec¬ 
tions of 1934 a group of major business leaders, including Alfred P. 
Sloan and William S. Knudsen of General Motors, Edward F. Hut¬ 
ton and Colby M. Chester of General Foods, J. Howard Pew of Sun 
Oil, Sewell L. Avery of Montgomery Ward, and the Du Ponts, 
joined with several political leaders who had been dethroned by 
the New Deal to form the American Liberty League, an organization 
dedicated to protecting property rights from the “radicalism” of the 
New Deal (Schlesinger, 1958, 486). Roosevelt’s policy of conciliation 
notwithstanding, business had thrown down the gauntlet. But the 
election of 1934 was a New Deal sweep, bringing the Democratic 
margin to 45 in the Senate, and to 219 in the House—“the most 
overwhelming victory,” the New York Times declared, “in the 
history of American politics.” 


The State Concedes to Labor Power 

At this stage, implacable business opposition made the administra¬ 
tion far more responsive to demands from other groups in its con¬ 
stituency. The New Deal brain-truster Raymond Moley wrote re¬ 
cently of Roosevelt: 

No man was less bound by ideology in approaching national prob¬ 
lems. The strategy he adopted some time in 1935, devised with the 



131 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


collaboration of Edward J. Flynn, was to gather into the Demo¬ 
cratic Party many minorities, including the labor unions, through 
policies calculated to win the urban masses, while he held the 
farmers in line with cash benefits (559). 

Roosevelt and his advisors had originally thought of labor conces¬ 
sions primarily in terms of unemployment relief and insurance, old 
age pensions, and wages and hours protections (Bernstein, 1971, 11). 
But rank-and-file agitation set new terms, and the terms would 
have to be met if labor was to be kept in line. 


FEDERAL RESPONSE: THE WAGNER ACT 

By 1935, with worker-employer battles mounting, it was clear that 
conciliation had failed. The administration had lost business sup¬ 
port and, if worker demands went unappeased, it stood in danger 
of losing some labor support as well. In the spring of 1935 the NIRA 
and the president were being denounced by all sides. “Labor's pub¬ 
lic enemy Number One is Franklin D. Roosevelt," said Heywood 
Broun. The Supreme Court brought matters to a head on May 27, 
1935, for it declared the NIRA unconstitutional, thus scuttling the 
New Deal’s chief economic program. With even that protection gone, 
unemployment increased, wages dropped, and hours lengthened 
(Raybeck, 341). And the election of 1936 was on the horizon. 

In the spring of 1934 Senator Robert Wagner had introduced a 
bill to establish a new labor relations board that, unlike its predeces¬ 
sors, would have enforcement machinery. The board would be 
authorized to hold employee elections, to prohibit employers from 
engaging in practices to coerce or restrain employees, and to require 
employers to negotiate with the designated representatives of a 
majority of the workers in any bargaining unit. The bill gave the 
board the power to issue cease and desist orders, with recourse to 
the circuit courts in cases of noncompliance. 49 Businessmen rose up 


49 The Railway Labor Act of 1926, as amended in 1934, is widely said to have estab¬ 
lished the precedents for the Wagner Act, but as Fleming points out, in several respects 
the Wagner Act went much further in supporting labor unions. It permitted the closed 
shop, which the Railway Labor Act had prohibited. It restrained coercion by em¬ 
ployers, while the Railway Labor Act had restrained coercion from either side. And 
finally, the Wagner Act was passed over the fierce opposition of business, while the 
Railway Labor Act had been agreed upon by both labor and management (129). 




132 


Poor People’s Movements 

in protest and Wagner found few supporters for his measure in 
Congress. The president also refused his support, opting instead for 
Public Resolution No. 44, which established the National Labor 
Relations Board. As Edelman says of Roosevelt: 

He invariably failed to support labor legislation actively until he 
was convinced it had adequate political support, and he some¬ 
times sabotaged pro-labor policies already declared to be the law 
because of strong business pressure. . . . Always fairly sure the 
country would follow him on relief and recovery measures, he 
vacillated longest on long-range reform, for business and the middle 
class were most hostile here. Because he deliberately cultivated con¬ 
tacts with the whole gamut of group interests, he knew better than 
his predecessors what was politically expedient and what timing 
was indicated (182). 

A year later the timing was right, and labor agitation had helped 
make it so. When Wagner introduced a revised version of the bill 
that was to become the National Labor Relations Act, the measure 
found ready support. Since labor’s right to organize had long been 
upheld in principle, proponents of the bill had little difficulty find¬ 
ing arguments, adding only that the bill was important as a means 
of achieving economic balance by preserving purchasing power, and 
as a bulwark against communism. With few exceptions, the business 
community continued to be vehement in its opposition, and the 
National Association of Manufacturers mobilized one of its largest 
campaigns to defeat the measure. The Commercial and Financial 
Chronicle called it “one of the most objectionable, as well as one of 
the most revolutionary, pieces of legislation ever presented to 
Congress” (Schlesinger, 1958, 404). The AFL remained aloof, as did 
the administration; Secretary of Labor Perkins, the only administra¬ 
tion representative to testify, was ambivalent (Bernstein, 1971, 331). 
On May 2, 1935, the Senate Labor Committee reported unanimously 
in favor of the bill; the vote in the Senate was 63 to 12. Several 
weeks later, it passed the House by an overwhelming 132 to 42. 
Roosevelt, who until this time had kept silent, finally came out in 
favor of the bill and signed it on July 5, 1935. 

But the fight was not over. Two weeks after the bill became law, 
the American Liberty League published a brief signed by fifty- 
eight lawyers declaring the Wagner Act unconstitutional. Industry 
then acted on the assumption that the law need not be obeyed and 
U. S. Steel, General Motors, and Goodyear Tire and Rubber rushed 
to the federal courts where they got injunctions that tied the hands 



133 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


of the new National Labor Relations Board; by June 30, 1936, the 
board was involved in eighty-three such suits (Bernstein, 1971, 646). 
Moreover, there was reason to think employers would be vindicated 
by the Supreme Court. During 1935 and 1936 the Court had nulli¬ 
fied other major elements of the New Deal program, including the 
National Industrial Recovery Act. In 1936 the Court struck down 
the Guffey-Snyder Act, which laid down procedures for the coal 
industry very much like those of the Wagner Act. American industry 
had grounds for optimism. 


INDUSTRY’S RESISTANCE IS OVERCOME 

American workers, however, were also optimistic. The passage of 
the Wagner Act, at a time when working conditions were worsening 
after the temporary recovery of 1934, only reaffirmed for them the 
justice of their struggle and their sense that victories could be won. 
Congress had acted despite the threats and importuning of the lead¬ 
ing industrialists of the nation. Moreover the defeat of many of 
those same industrialists in the election of 1934 was repeated in 
the election of 1936 when, despite the vigorous opposition of busi¬ 
ness interests, the New Deal won an overwhelming sweep. Workers 
probably understood that for the moment, at least, business had lost 
control of the state. Consequently, labor militancy surged in 1936 
and 1937, especially in the mass production industries. The number 
of strikes continued to rise: 2,014 in 1935; 2,172 in 1936, and 4,740 
in 1937. And more than half of the strikes were over the demand 
for union recognition under the terms laid out in the Wagner Act 
(Millis and Montgomery, 692, 701). 

The first big strike after the Wagner Act occurred in Akron. The 
background for the strike was familiar. Akron was a one-industry 
town where employment had fallen by half after the stock market 
crash. By the spring of 1933 many of the rubber companies had shut 
down, Goodyear was on a two-day week, the main bank had failed, 
and the city was broke, laying off many of its own employees (Bern¬ 
stein, 1971, 98-99). Then came section 7(a), setting the rubber 
workers in motion. Federal locals were formed, and some forty to 
fifty thousand workers joined up, all of whom AFL leaders tried to 
parcel out among the international craft unions. At the end of 1934 
the NLRB ordered elections in the Goodyear and Firestone plants. 



134 


Poor People’s Movements 

but the companies went to court and the issue was delayed inde¬ 
finitely (Brecher, 179). The workers were pressing for a strike, but 
their union leaders signed a federally mediated agreement to await 
the outcome of the court action and Goodyear announced that the 
agreement made “no change in employee relations since the provi¬ 
sions are in complete accord with the policies under which Goodyear 
has always operated” (Brecher, 180). Discouraged by AFL and gov¬ 
ernment maneuverings, men dropped out of the union. 

But the workers’ discontent did not dwindle, especially when in 
November 1935, and again in January 1936, Goodyear Tire and 
Rubber cut wages. Then, on February 10, the company laid off a 
large number of men without giving the usual notice. A few nights 
later, 137 workers, hardly any of them union members, shut off 
the power and sat down. Local Rubber Worker Union officials per¬ 
suaded the sit-downers to leave, but 1,500 Goodyear workers met 
and voted to strike (Brecher, 183-184). The word went out, workers 
began to gather in the bitter cold, and by morning the eleven-mile 
perimeter of the Goodyear plant was circled by pickets. Few of the 
ten to fifteen thousand who struck were members of the union, 50 
but the factory was at a standstill. Meanwhile, the picketers were 
digging in, building over 300 shanties for protection against the 
winter winds, from which they flew American flags, again named 
for the promise: “Camp Roosevelt,” “Camp John L. Lewis,” “Camp 
Senator Wagner.” 

Goodyear succeeded in getting a sweeping injunction against mass 
picketing from the common pleas court in Summit County, but the 
injunction was not enforced. When the sheriff threatened to open 
the plant with a force of 150 deputies, thousands of workers armed 
with clubs and sticks massed before the gates and the deputies with¬ 
drew. Later the rumor spread that a “Law and Order League” would 
attack the picket lines, but the rubber workers armed again, and 
the threat never materialized. Goodyear then turned to Governor 
Davey for troops, but a state election was approaching, popular senti¬ 
ment in Akron was with the strikers, and the Akron Central Labor 
Union declared there would be a general strike if force was used. 
The governor agreed there was no justification for calling out the 
militia. 


so Walsh reports 800 union members among the 14,000 Goodyear employees at the time 
of the strike (139). 



135 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


At the end of February Assistant Secretary of Labor McGrady 
arrived on the scene to mediate. He recommended that the strikers 
return to work and submit the issues to arbitration. Some 4,000 work¬ 
ers met at the armory and jeered the proposal down, singing out 
“No, no, a thousand times no” (Bernstein, 1971, 595). In the fourth 
week of the strike Goodyear Tire and Rubber agreed to a settle¬ 
ment that granted reinstatement of the discharged employees, reduc¬ 
tion of the work week, and recognition of union shop committees 
(Levinson, 143-146; Thomas Brooks, 181-182). 51 

The next outbreak was in the automobile industry, in the giant 
industrial empire of General Motors, controlled by the Du Ponts 
and J. P. Morgan. 52 GM had always stood firmly and successfully 
against unionism, partly by virtue of an elaborate program of 
“welfare capitalism” inaugurated during the upsurge of union activ¬ 
ity following World War I. With the onset of the Great Depres¬ 
sion, the welfare programs eroded, and after 1933 GM relied more 
on a vast spy network in its plants to discourage union activities. 
According to the La Follette Committee, GM was the best customer 
of the labor spy agencies, and its expenditure for espionage rose as 
unionization activities increased (Fine, 37), totaling at least a mil¬ 
lion dollars between January 1934 and June 1936 (Walsh, 109): 

But if labor spies made the men fearful, they also made them 
angry, given the temper of the times. There were other grievances 
as well. Hourly wages in the auto industry were relatively high, but 
employment was extremely irregular, and workers suffered from 
severe economic insecurity. Between September 1933 and September 
1934, for example, fully 40 percent of GM workers were employed 
less than twenty-nine weeks, and 60 percent earned less than $1,000. 
Workers were even more incensed over the speed-ups and model 
changeovers which exhausted them and which, they felt, meant the 


si The agreement also specified that management would "meet with any or all em¬ 
ployees individually or through their chosen representatives.” This the Goodyear 
management did, again and again, without, however, agreeing to sign a collective bar¬ 
gaining contract until 1941 (Bernstein, 1971, 596-602). Some critics claim the rubber 
workers were prepared to hold out for a better settlement, but were discouraged from 
doing so by CIO leaders, and by Communist organizers in Akron as well (Buhle, 238). 
52 The far-flung GM network of sixty-nine automotive plants in thirty-five cities, in¬ 
cluding the Fisher Body Corporation, had at first been hard hit by the depression. 
Sales of cars and trucks in the United States dropped 74 percent between 1928 and 1932, 
and net corporation profits fell from $296 million to less than $8.5 million. Then, 
under the New Deal, the corporation recovered quickly. By 1936, sales of cars and trucks 
almost quadrupled, and the number of employees doubled (Fine, 20-25). 




136 


Poor People's Movements 

company was getting more profits for less work (Fine, 55-61). By 
1933 spontaneous strikes began to spread in the industry. John Ander¬ 
son, a rank-and-file leader of the time, gives an account of such a 
walkout: 

Briggs Manufacturing Company hired me as a metal finisher at 
52 cents an hour, but they failed to pay me at that rate. The first 
week I got 45 cents an hour. The second week our rate was cut 
to 40 cents an hour, and the third week it was cut to 35 cents. 
These wage cuts were enough to provoke the men to strike. After 
being called to work on Sunday, they walked out at noon without 
telling the foreman. On Monday we went to work again, and 
before starting work we told the foreman: “We want to know 
what our wages are. We were hired at 52 cents an hour, and we’re 
being paid 35 cents.” The foreman said: “You see that line out 
there of men looking for jobs? If you fellows don’t want to work, 
get your clothes and clear out. There are plenty of men who will 
take your jobs.” 

This statement provoked the men into walking out as a body, 
not as individuals. They had no organization; they had no one to 
speak for them. There were several hundred of them milling around 
in the street wondering what to do. ... I got on a car fender 
and suggested we demand the 52 cents an hour promised on our 
hiring slips. ... I was blacklisted as a result of the strike . . . [but] I 
learned that as a result of the strike the wages of metal finishers 
had been raised to 60 cents an hour ... (Lynd, 1969, 62-63). 

After the passage of section 7 (a), auto workers had begun to 
join unions. Many of them had joined the AFL federal union (later 
to become the United Automobile Workers and to affiliate with 
the CIO). 53 But, under the constraining effects of AFL policies and 
government conciliation of the auto industry, total union member¬ 
ship had rapidly declined, to only 5 percent of the workers in 
the industry by early 1935. Still, unionized or not, with the passage 
of the Wagner Act, the landslide New Deal victory in the election 
of 1936, and the successes of the rubber workers in Akron, the auto 
workers’ courage rose and ferment increased. By the fall and winter 
of 1936 each minor offense by management fell like whiplashes on 
aggrieved men chafing for action. There is the story, for example, of 


53 Some also joined independent unions: the Mechanics Educational Society of America, 
an independent union of auto tool and die makers organized by the Industrial Workers 
of the World; the Associated Automobile Workers of America; and the Automotive 
Industrial Workers Association, organized somewhat later by Richard Frankensteen. 




137 


The Industrial Workers’ Movement 


an early sit-down in Flint that was triggered when a union man 
who protested a firing was led through the plant by a foreman, 
apparently to be discharged. As he walked the length of the belt-line, 
his face communicated the message, and every worker turned from 
the moving row of auto bodies until 700 men were idle. The com¬ 
pany rehired the discharged man before work was resumed (Levin¬ 
son, 175). 54 Brief walkouts and sit-downs at the Chrysler Corporation, 
at the Bendix plant in South Bend, and at the Midland Steel and 
the Kelsey-Hayes plants in Detroit ended with some degree of union 
recognition. In this mood, the struggle with General Motors was 
bound to come. 

Although the fledgling United Automobile Workers, by now af¬ 
filiated with the CIO, had assigned Wyndham Mortimer, a Com¬ 
munist rank-and-file leader from Cleveland, to begin an organizing 
campaign in Flint some months earlier, the GM strike actually began 
relatively spontaneously, erupting in different places at about the 
same time. 55 Several outbreaks at the Atlanta GM plant culminated 
in a strike on November 18, 1936, when the rumor spread that man¬ 
agement intended to lay off several men for wearing union buttons. 
A few weeks later the workers at a GM Chevrolet plant in Kansas 
City walked out after the management had allegedly dismissed a 
man for violating a company rule against jumping over the line. 
On December 28 a small group of workers sat down on the line 
in the GM Fisher Body plant in Cleveland, and 7,000 people stopped 
working. Then, on December 30, about 50 workers sat down in the 
Fisher Body plant in Flint, presumably because of a management 
decision to transfer three inspectors who had refused to quit the 
union. That night the workers in a second and larger body plant 
in Flint also sat down on the line, and the Flint sit-down strike was 
on—at a time when the union could claim as members only a small 
minority of Flint workers. 56 The strike spread to other cities. Sit- 


54 See Kraus for a similar account of a sit-down in Flint in November 1936, just weeks 
before the big sit-down strike. Kraus was the Communist editor of the auto strike 
newspaper. 

55 When Walt Moore, a local Communist organizer in Flint, informed William Wein- 
stone, head of the Michigan Communist Party, that the GM strike was imminent, Wein- 
stone was shocked: “You haven’t got Flint organized. What are you talking about?” 
Moore replied, “Well, Bill, we can’t stop it. The sentiments are too great” (Keeran, 
241-242). 

56 When Mortimer arrived in Flint the previous June, the Flint locals had only 122 
members, and most of those were considered to be GM spies. Presumably more men and 
women signed up in the next few months before the GM strike, but just how many is 
unclear. 




138 


Poor People’s Movements 

downers took over the GM Fleetwood and Cadillac plants in Detroit, 
and a lamp factory in Indiana; walkout strikes were called in St. 
Louis, Janesville, Norwood, Kansas City, and Toledo. By January 
1, 1937, 112,000 of GM’s production workers were idle. 

Flint, the main battleground of the strike, was the center of the 
GM empire, and a GM town. The corporation controlled about 80 
percent of the jobs. GM’s upper crust was the town’s upper crust 
and most of the political officials were former GM employees or 
stockholders. Accordingly, when company guards tried to bar the 
strike supporters from delivering food to the men inside the plant, 
they were quickly reinforced by Flint police and a battle ensued. 
The police used tear gas and guns, the strikers returned their fire 
with streams of water from GM fire hoses, and with automobile 
hinges, bottles, and rocks. About two dozen strikers and policemen 
were injured in what came to be known as the ‘‘Battle of the 
Running Bulls.” 

The disorder precipitated the intervention of the Governor of 
Michigan, Frank Murphy, who had been elected to office in the 
Roosevelt landslide of the previous November. He had received the 
endorsement of the entire Michigan labor movement, although he 
was also on close terms with auto industry executives, and was later 
revealed to have substantial GM holdings (Brecher, 200). Governor 
Murphy sent word to GM officials not to deny food or heat to the 
strikers in the interest of public health, and arrived on the scene 
with about 2,000 National Guardsmen who, however, were instructed 
not to take sides. 57 The governor then assumed the role of peace¬ 
maker, prevailing on the UAW leaders and General Motors officials 
to negotiate. But the negotiations proved futile, the workers evacu¬ 
ated three minor plants only to discover that GM had also agreed 
to negotiate with the Flint Alliance, a citizens’ vigilante organization 
dominated by the corporation. By mid-January, Secretary of Labor 
Frances Perkins was importuning GM executives to meet with union 
representatives. The corporation was losing about $2 million a 
day in sales, but it nevertheless held fast, refusing to meet with 
the union until the plants were vacated. On January 27 GM an¬ 
nounced that it intended to resume production, and went to court 


57 The governor also persuaded the Genesee County prosecutor not to use 300 John Doe 
warrants issued against strikers after the “Battle of the Running Bulls” and to release 
on bail Victor Reuther, Robert Travis, and Henry Kraus, all of whom were involved in 
the battle (Keeran, 264-265). 




139 The Industrial Workers' Movement 

for an injunction against the sit-downers. 58 The strikers responded 
by occupying yet another plant in a dramatically covert maneuver, 
leading President Roosevelt to phone John L. Lewis with the mes¬ 
sage that he backed a plan calling for GM recognition of UAW for 
one month. Lewis is said to have replied, “My people tell me it’s 
got to be six months,” and the sit-down continued. 

On February 2 the court acted. The order handed down by Judge 
Paul Gadola instructed the workers to leave the plants at three 
o’clock on February 3, and pressure was mounting on the governor 
to clear the plants by force. But worker pressure was mounting as 
well. On the evening of February 2 the strikers in one of the occupied 
plants sent a message to the governor. Their words virtually exulted 
in their sense of righteousness; the burden of violence was on the 
opposition: 59 

We have carried on a stay-in strike for over a month in order to 
make General Motors Corporation obey the law and engage in 
collective bargaining. . . . Unarmed as we are, the introduction of 
militia, sheriffs, or police with murderous weapons will mean a 
blood bath of unarmed workers. . . . We have decided to stay in 
the plant. We have no illusions about the sacrifices which this deci¬ 
sion will entail. We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to 
oust us, many of us will be killed, and we take this means of 
making it known to our wives, to our children, to the people of 
Michigan that if this result follows from the attempt to eject us, 
you are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths 
(Levinson, 164-165). 

The spirit of the message from the sit-down strikers was the spirit 
of many workers outside the plants as well. On the morning of 
February 3, as the Guardsmen set up their machine guns and how¬ 
itzers, the roads to Flint were jammed with thousands of trucks and 
automobiles—supporters of the strikers from surrounding cities who 
had come to join the picket lines. Rubber workers came from Akron; 
auto workers from Lansing, Toledo, and Pontiac; Walter Reuther 
brought several hundred men from his West Side local in Detroit; 
workers came from the Kelsey-Hayes plant in Detroit carrying a 
banner: “Kelsey-Hayes never forgets their friends.” As the hour of 
the court order approached, a procession of perhaps 10,000 workers. 


58 Lee Pressman, a CIO lawyer, had scuttled an earlier injunction by revealing that the 
presiding judge owned substantial amounts of GM stock. 

59 The message was actually written by organizer Bob Travis and Lee Pressman, then 
approved by the sit-down strikers (Keeran, 272). 



140 


Poor People's Movements 

led by Women’s Emergency Brigades carrying an American flag, 
circled the menaced plant. The marchers carried clubs and sticks, 
lengths of pipe, and clothes trees for the battle they expected. Thus 
the deadline passed. 60 

The crisis had reached the point where the White House was 
compelled to intervene in seriousness. At Roosevelt’s request, and 
coaxed by the Secretary of Labor, corporation executives met with 
CIO and auto union leaders, and in the agreement that resulted, the 
union won a six-month period of what amounted to exclusive recog¬ 
nition in the seventeen plants closed by strikes. 61 

A similar sequence of events occurred in the Chrysler plants only 
a few short weeks after the GM strike was settled. (The overwhelm¬ 
ing majority of Chrysler workers had voted in favor of an “employee 
representation” plan only two years earlier.) When discussions be¬ 
tween Chrysler and UAW leaders bogged down, 60,000 workers 
struck, two-thirds of them by sitting down in Chrysler factories. 
The strikers held the plants for thirty days, defending their occupa¬ 
tion with massive picketing. An attempt by the local sheriff to en¬ 
force a court order for evacuation of the plants was responded to 
by 30,000 to 50,000 massed strikers who encircled the plants. An 
agreement was finally signed with Chrysler early in April. Within 
a year, the UAW claimed 350,000 members (Walsh, 126-133). 

Steel workers were also in motion. Wages in steel had fallen 
sharply from a weekly average of $32.60 in 1929, to $13.20 in 1932— 
for those lucky enough to work at all (Walsh, 60). The industry had 
dealt with worker demands during 1933-1934 by incorporating fully 
90 percent of the 500,000 steel workers into “employee representa¬ 
tion plans” or company unions (Robert Brooks, 79). Ironically, it 
was these company unions that became the first vehicles for collec¬ 
tive action. 62 A steel worker tells the story: 


so Both the sheriff and Judge Gadola explained that no action could be taken to enforce 
the injunction until GM sought a writ of attachment against the sit-downers. The writ 
commanding the sheriff to “attach the bodies” of all the sit-downers, as well as the 
picketers and the UAW officers, was secured two days later. The sheriff then requested 
the governor to authorize the National Guard to carry out the order but, by that time, 
GM was at the conference table and the governor demurred. In any case, the National 
Guard was apparently not inclined to hazard an assault upon the thousands inside and 
outside the plants (Fine, 292-294). 

61 Accounts of the General Motors strike can be found in Fine, 302-312; Keeran, 225- 
285; Thomas Brooks, 183-186; Levinson, 160-168; Prickett, 180-202. 

62 According to Matles and Higgins, company unions were also the vehicle for rank-and- 
file unionism at the General Electric plant in Schenectady (64), and at the Westing- 
house plant in East Pittsburgh (78). 




141 


The Industrial Workers * Movement 


Well, we got interested in the union . . . because the steelmill 
people came into the mill around 1933 and handed us a piece of 
paper. We looked at it, and it was called “An Employee Repre¬ 
sentation Plan.” ... I looked at this paper as a young lad and 
said this thing could never work, because it said right at the outset 
that there would be five members from management to sit on a 
committee and five members from the union—the company union— 
to sit on the committee. I asked who settled the tie, and of course 
I found out the management did. . . . We tried to disband the 
company union, and we formed what we called the Associated 
Employees. This was just workers like myself attempting to do 
something by way of getting into a legitimate union. . . . One day 
we read in the newspapers that they were trying to do the same 
thing down in Pittsburgh (Lynd, 1969, 55-57). 

Signs of restlessness within the company union structure became 
clear early in 1935 when employee representatives in the Pittsburgh 
and Chicago area plants began agitating for wage increases, an issue 
that was not considered to be within the jurisdiction of the employee 
representation plans, or even of the individual plant managers, who 
claimed that wages were a matter of overall corporation policy. As 
a result, company union representatives from different plants began 
to meet together to consider joint actions (Brooks, Robert, 85-89). 
In January 1936 thirteen out of twenty-five employee representatives 
in the Gary, Indiana, plant of Carnegie-Illinois Steel formed a union 
lodge. In Pittsburgh (where workers were especially angry about a 
10 percent check-off being taken from their wages by Carnegie- 
Illinois as repayment for relief baskets) some twenty-five employee 
representatives met to set up a Pittsburgh central council to make 
district-wide demands on wages and hours issues through the com¬ 
pany unions. 

By the summer of 1936, rank-and-file unrest was bubbling up in 
spontaneous walkouts. In the mood of the time, any grievance could 
become a trigger, as in the incident Jessie Reese recounts at the 
Youngstown Sheet and Tube mills: 

They fired our foreman, a nice fellow, and they brought over a 
slave driver from Gary. A white fellow told us he was an organizer 
for the Ku Klux Klan and said: “You all going to stand for that 
guy to come in here?” So I went down to the operators of the pickles 
and said: “Shut the pickles down.” And they shut them down. I 
went over to see Long, the foreman, and I said: “Long, you lost 
your job . . . give me five minutes and we’ll make them tell you 
where your job’s at. ...” I drove over to the hot strip where 



142 


Poor People’s Movements 

the white fellows were rolling hot steel, and I said: “Hey, fellows, 
just stop a minute rolling that steel. We’re shutting down over 
there. We’re fighting for ten cents an hour and our foreman back 
on the job.” (It would look foolish fighting for your foreman and 
not for yourself.) And they said: “Oh, you got it organized?” And 
I said, “Yes, we shut it down. Look over there, we’re down, we’re 
not moving. . . So the white fellows said: “We’ll follow you” 
(Lynd, 1969,60-67). 

On July 5, 1936, steel workers congregated in Homestead, Pennsyl¬ 
vania, to honor the Homestead martyrs and to hear a “Steel Workers 
Declaration of Independence,” read by an erstwhile company union 
leader. Lieutenant Governor Kennedy of Pennsylvania, a former 
miner and officer of the UMW, told the crowd that steel was now 
open territory for union organizers and that they could count on 
government relief funds if there was a strike—a far cry from the 
treatment strikers received in Homestead during earlier struggles 
(Walsh, 49). Later that summer, Governor Earle told a Labor Day 
crowd of 200,000 assembled in Pittsburgh that never during his 
administration would the state troops be used to break a strike and 
“the skies returned the crowd’s response” (Walsh, 171). 

It was in this context that the CIO launched the Steel Workers 
Organizing Committee, putting 433 organizers into the field and 
suspending the customary dues and initiation fees to sign men up 
(Bernstein, 1971, 452-453). In November 1936, when the SWOC 
announced that 82,315 men had signed membership cards, U. S. Steel 
responded by announcing a 10 percent wage hike, and offering con¬ 
tracts to be signed only by the company unions. But many of the 
company union leaders had been drawn into the SWOC and refused 
to sign, while Secretary of Labor Perkins said that the leaders of the 
Employee Representation Plans “had no right to sign contracts.” 
By March 1937 when SWOC had established 150 locals with 100,000 
members (Raybeck, 351) and the company unions were wrecked, 
U. S. Steel signed with the union, without a strike. 

There were probably several reasons for the easy victory. GM had 
capitulated only a few weeks earlier, after its production had ground 
to a complete halt, 63 and U. S. Steel must have been worried by 


63 Lynd quotes a letter written a few years later by Thomas W. Lamont (of the House 
of Morgan and U. S. Steel) to President Roosevelt explaining U. S. Steel’s decision to 
negotiate. Apparently the board of U. S. Steel feared the enormous costs of a strike 
such as General Motors had just undergone. A strike, Lamont added, might also “prove 




143 


The Industrial Workers ' Movement 


the losses a strike would cause at a time when the prospects of a 
war in Europe had created a booming demand for steel. Worker 
agitation in the steel mills was interfering with production just when 
U. S. Steel was negotiating vast contracts for armaments with the 
British, who were insisting on a guarantee of uninterrupted produc¬ 
tion. Unionism was a way to offer that guarantee, as Myron Taylor, 
head of U. S. Steel, had learned from the agreement signed in the 
captive mines in 1933 (Walsh, 73). It was also clear that U. S. Steel 
would get little political support in a showdown. Governor Earle of 
Pennsylvania, elected by a labor-liberal coalition, had promised the 
steel workers his backing. And on Capitol Hill, criticism of the steel 
industry for its espionage activities and its price fixing practices was 
growing. Finally, unlike the men who headed other steel companies, 
Myron Taylor was not a steel man, but had been installed by the 
financiers who dominated his board, and he appeared to have the 
flexibility and sophistication to respond to new conditions with new 
methods. 64 Unionization quickly followed in U. S. Steel’s subsidiaries, 
and in some other independent steel companies. By May 1937 SWOC 
membership had reached 300,000 and over a hundred contracts had 
been signed (Raybeck, 351). 

Little Steel—including the National Steel Corporation, Republic, 
Bethlehem, Inland Steel, and the Youngstown Sheet and Tube 
Corporation—did rot sign. In late May 1937 the SWOC called 70,000 
men out on a strike, which was ultimately broken by the police and 
troops provided by hostile state and local governments. Local gov¬ 
ernments in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in Canton and Youngstown, 
Ohio, and in Chicago cooperated openly with the steel corporations. 65 
In Chicago police interfered with peaceful picketing from the 
beginning of the strike, and when strikers held a straggly Memorial 
Day march to protest an anti-picketing order and the arrest of pickets, 
the police shot them down, killing ten and wounding ninety (Taft 


such a major crisis as to constitute almost a social revolution.” The plan to avert the 
strike was not hard to contrive; simply "accredit the C.I.O. as a leading bargaining 
agency” (Lynd, 1974, 32). 

64 This kind of difference between industry men and Wall Street representatives in the 
handling of labor problems had been evident before in the steel industry. For example, 
financiers on the board of U. S. Steel had pushed through welfare programs early in the 
century, over the opposition of industry representatives. 

65 For a detailed account of the use of local police forces to break the Little Steel strike, 
and the techniques by which local government was made to serve corporation purposes, 
see Walsh, 75-95. In Youngstown, Ohio, for example, every organizer in the region was 
jailed at least once, and some five or six times (84). 




144 


Poor People’s Movements 

and Ross, 358-359.) 66 In Ohio, Governor Martin L. Davey announced 
that troops would be used to open the mills, and the National Guard 
moved systematically across the state to break up picket lines and 
arrest local strike leaders. Altogether the Little Steel strike left 16 
dead and 307 injured, according to Senator La Follette. The La 
Follette Committee reports summed up the record of the struggle at 
the Republic Steel Corporation plants: 67 

... a mobilization of men, money and munitions occurred which 
has not been approached in the history of labor disputes in recent 
times. Although known to be incomplete, the committee has as¬ 
sembled data showing that a total of 7,000 men were directly em¬ 
ployed as guards, patrolmen, deputy sheriffs, National Guardsmen, 
city police and company police on strike duty. Over $4,000,000 was 
expended directly attributable to the strike. A total of $141,000 
worth of industrial munitions was assembled for use. 

As in the Flint sit-downs, the workers looked to the president for 
help, but on June 30, 1937, the press quoted Roosevelt’s response: 
“A plague on both your houses.” In mid-July the strike was lost. 
It was the last of the depression battles, and spelled the end of an 
era. But while the Little Steel strike was lost in the mills, the move¬ 
ment of which it was a part produced the political concessions that 
were later to force union recognition by government tribunal. 68 

Throughout 1936 sit-down strikes and walkouts raced through in¬ 
dustry and business. In 1936 there had been only 48 sit-down strikes; 
in 1937 there were about 500 such strikes lasting more than a day 
and involving about 400,000 workers. The peak came in March, 
when 170 sit-down strikes were in progress, affecting some 170,000 
workers (Fine, 331). There must have been many more of shorter 
duration, for the sit-down was becoming the workers’ ready weapon, 
as the song of the movement suggested: 

When they tie the can to a union man, sit down! Sit down! 

When they give him the sack, they’ll take him back, sit downl 
Sit down! 


66 A newsreel of the event was suppressed by Paramount for fear of inciting riots 
throughout the country. The film was later secretly shown to the La Follette Committee 
and a blow-by-blow account of the film itself can be found in Hofstadter and Wallace, 
179-184. 

67 Republic apparently was the largest purchaser of tear gas and sickening gas in the 
country, in addition* to having acquired a veritable arsenal of munitions. 

68 By the autumn of 1941 the four main Little Steel companies recognized the union, 
although not without a militant strike at Bethlehem Steel. 



145 The Industrial Workers' Movement 

When the speed up comes, just twiddle your thumbs, sit down! Sit 
down! 

When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk, sit down! Sit down! 

The tactic was admirably suited to the unorganized struggle of the 
mid-1980s. A small number of workers could sit down on the line 
and stop production, without benefit of much advance planning or 
advance commitment. With workers controlling the plant, employers 
could not import strikebreakers. In cases like General Motors, where 
many specialized factories depended on each other, a few sit-down 
strikes could, and did, stop an entire corporation. Thus, relatively 
small-scale and spontaneous actions could bring management to heel. 
Most of the sit-down strikes ended with gains for the workers. 69 
Moreover, in the climate of the time, the sit-down, itself nonviolent, 
did not usually precipitate police action. 70 And so the tactic spread, 
from factory workers to salesgirls, to hospital workers, garbage col¬ 
lectors, and watchmakers, to sailors, farmhands, opticians, and hotel 
employees. An AFL business agent for the Hotel and Restaurant 
Employees recalls: 

You’d be sitting in the office any March day of 1937, and the 
phone would ring and the voice at the other end would say, 
“My name is Mary Jones; I’m a soda clerk at Liggett’s; we’ve thrown 
the manager out and we’ve got the keys. What do we do now?” And 
you’d hurry over to the company to negotiate and over there they’d 
say, “I think it’s the height of irresponsibility to call a strike 
before you’ve even asked for a contract,” and all you could answer 
was, “You’re so right” (Thomas Brooks, 180). 

By the fall of 1937, there were cases of operators in projection booths 
of movie theaters who locked themselves in and stopped the shows 
until their demands were met (Levinson, 173-175). Still more work¬ 
ers took part in walkout strikes. Before 1937 was over, nearly two 
million workers had engaged in labor struggles in that year alone 
(Millis and Montgomery, 692), more than half of them to secure 
union recognition. 

The strikes that spread through the country in 1936 and 1937 
were victorious as economic struggles, but they were victorious only 


69 Fine reports that “substantial gains” were achieved in over 50 percent of the 1937 
sit-downs, and compromises worked out in over 30 percent (332). 

70 Walsh estimates that only 25 out of some 1,000 sit-downs were defeated by police 
(60). 




146 


Poor People’s Movements 

because a century-long accommodation between governmetit and 
economic elites had been broken. The workers’ movement had 
exerted sufficient political force to protect the economic force of the 
strike. The rubber workers in Akron, the auto workers in Flint, the 
steel workers in Pennsylvania all had been able to overcome em¬ 
ployer resistance only because governors dependent on the support 
of aroused workers were reluctant to send troops against strikers. 
And in Youngstown and Chicago, where state and local governments 
were hostile, the Little Steel strike was lost, the workers’ economic 
power once more destroyed by government firepower. 

Despite a new dive in the economy in 1937, the Department of 
Labor reported that wages of rubber workers increased by one-third 
over 1934, with the greatest increases in the lower wage brackets; 
the six-hour day was established in many rubber plants. The SWOC 
won wage increases in steel that led to an industry-wide minimum 
of five dollars a day, and the industry’s wage bill increased by 
one-third over 1929. In the auto industry, workers won a seventy-five- 
cents-an-hour minimum and a forty-hour week. Maritime workers 
were earning a peak wage of $72.50 a month. Overall, in October 
1937, Philip Murray estimated a billion dollars had been added in 
wages: $250 million in steel; $100 million in automobiles; about $60 
million in textiles; $6 million in transport; and $12 million in 
electrical appliances. 71 Nearly a million workers had won a 35- or 
36-hour week (Levinson, 260-277). 

The political impact of rising worker agitation was also evident 
in the concessions wrung directly from government. Federal regula¬ 
tion of wages and hours had been an issue since the abortive NIRA 
codes, and had figured again in the 1936 election campaign. Late 
in 1937, after a new dive in the economy, Roosevelt began to push 
hard for a wages and hours bill (which the AFL continued to oppose). 
When the House Rules Committee, dominated by southern congress¬ 
men who had good reason to worry about the impact of minimum 
wage legislation in the South, prevented the measure from coming 
up for a vote in the regular session, Roosevelt called Congress back 
for a special session. Finally in January 1938 the Fair Labor Standards 
Act became law, affecting some 300,000 workers who were earn¬ 
ing less than the twenty-five-cents-an-hour minimum, and some 


7i According to Arthur M. Ross, real hourly earnings between 1933 and 1945 in sixty- 
five industries show a direct relationship between the percent of unionization and wage 
increases. Cited in Bernstein (1971, 775). 



147 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


1,300,000 workers whose official work week was over the forty-four- 
hour standard established by the law (Raybeck, 360). The new 
depression of 1937-1938 helped prompt several other measures to 
ease and appease labor, most importantly an increase in activity by 
the Public Works Administration, an expansion of the work relief 
rolls, the introduction of the federal public housing program, and 
a step-up of the due date for the first social security payments from 
1942 to 1939. 

But of all these measures, it was the Wagner Act and federal sup¬ 
port of unionization that was most important in shaping the workers' 
political future. After business broke with Roosevelt in 1935 the 
president not only lent his support to the act, but appointed pro-labor 
members to the NLRB. Then in April 1937, several months before 
the debacle of the Little Steel strike, the Supreme Court handed 
down its decision upholding the Wagner Act in National Labor 
Relations Board vs. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. With that 
decision, the protection of government for the right of labor to 
organize and to bargain collectively was reaffirmed. 


From Disruption to Organization 

The Wagner Act not only placed the ultimate authority of the state 
behind the right of workers to join unions and bargain collectively, 
it also established a series of mechanisms through which that au¬ 
thority was enforced. With the passage of the act, therefore, it was 
government as much as the unions that organized workers, a point 
to which we will return shortly. Moreover, as our account up to 
now should make evident, the unions could not take much credit for 
the uprisings that forced government to act to protect unionization 
either. 


WHO MOBILIZED INSURGENCY? 

In the minds of most people, worker struggles are usually linked 
with unionism; the right to join a union and to bargain collectively 
was often a central demand in worker uprisings long before the 
1930s. But that does not mean that established unions played a 



148 


Poor People’s Movements 

central role in these uprisings. In fact some of the fiercest struggles 
in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries occurred when the 
unions were weakest and sometimes despite the resistance of estab¬ 
lished union leadership. 72 But while existing unions could not often 
be credited with the great worker struggles of the pre-depression years, 
there were nevertheless organizers in these struggles. Some of these 
organizers were insurgents from the rank and file; others were radi¬ 
cals whose vision of an alternative future helped to account for their 
exemplary courage. Wherever these organizers came from, their 
vision helped goad workers into protest, and their courage gave 
workers heart and determination. 

In the struggles of the 1930s, a similar pattern emerged. Many of 
the workers’ battles were mounted to win union recognition. But 
neither the battles nor the victories were the result of existing union 
organization or union leadership. In fact the rising number of strikes 
after 1934 paralleled the decline in union membership as the AFL 
scuttled its own federal unions. Thus the battles in Toledo, Minnea¬ 
polis, and San Francisco occurred either in the aftermath of failed 
unionization drives, or before unionization had taken hold. The 
textile strike of 1934 erupted among the rank and file after union 
leadership had settled with the industry, and later the United Textile 
Workers disclaimed any responsibility for the “flying squadrons” 
through which the strike had spread (Brecher, 169). The massive 
walkout of rubber workers at Goodyear in 1936 occurred when the 
United Rubber Workers had shrunk to a weak and small union; 
four days after the strike had begun, URW officials were still claim- 


72 For example, Brecher points out that the great railroad strikes of 1877 occurred 
during a low point in union organization; the membership of the national unions had 
fallen to about 50,000 from 300,000 in 1870 (9-10). Moreover, when the strikes broke 
out, the Trainsmen Union had nothing to do with them. In the strike wave of 1886 
the Knights of Labor found itself a reluctant partner as workers walked out first, and 
joined the Knights later. Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights, complained that “the 
majority of the newcomers were not of the quality the Order had sought for in the 
past” and suspended the organizing of new assemblies of workers (Brecher, 38). At the 
start of the miners’ strike of 1894, the United Mine Workers had no more than 20,000 
members, but 150,000 men joined the walkout. And in the strike of the youthful 
American Railway Union against the Pullman company the same year, nearly half the 
260,000 workers who joined the strike were not union members. Meanwhile, the older 
railway brotherhoods ignored the strike, and even encouraged strikebreaking, as they 
did again during the wildcat railway strike of 1919 (Brecher, 82; 89-92). Similarly, AFL 
support of the great steel strike of 1919 was reluctant, while the Amalgamated 
Association of Iron and Steel Workers actually ordered its men back to work during the 
strike. 




149 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


ing it was not their affair (Brecher, 184). Later, when 15,000 men 
were on strike, the CIO sent organizers, funds, and negotiators. 
Bernstein writes that these experienced unionists guided the bar¬ 
gaining and restrained the “mountaineers’ natural tendency to vio¬ 
lence” (1971, 595). But it was the mountaineers’ willingness to use 
violence in the face of violence that won the strike. 

After the abortive experiences with the AFL during 1933 and 

1934. 73 only a tiny percentage of auto workers had joined the newly 
named United Automobile Workers. When the sit-downs began in 

1936. 74 the leaders of the new union were not quite in control of 
the wave of strikes that shook the industry. Homer Martin, the presi¬ 
dent of the UAW, was reportedly nonplussed when it became clear 
that the strike in the Atlanta GM plant was spreading and the union 
was faced with a GM strike. John L. Lewis, who had by this time 
broken with the AFL and established the Committee of Industrial 
Organizations, is said to have tried to head off the sit-downs, and 
CIO spokesman Charles Howard had told the 1936 UAW convention 
that the CIO was “not even considering the possibility of a strike in 
the auto industry, as we preach industrial peace” (Keeran, 126). Ac¬ 
cording to J. Raymond Walsh, later research and education director 
for the CIO, “The CIO high command, preoccupied with the drive 
in steel, tried in vain to prevent the strike . . .” (112). 75 Once the 
sit-downs started, the CIO leaders came quickly after, rushing to 
catch up with and capture the spontaneous outbreaks of angry men 
and their local leaders. The vast ambition and keen instincts that 
had led Lewis to sense the opportunity for organizing industrial work¬ 
ers also led him to support the sit-downs once they had occurred, 
and to take over the negotiations with GM leaders. 


73 Brecher reports that in local auto strikes before the Flint outbreak, the AFL acted as 
strikebreaker, marching its men through the picket lines with police protection (187- 
188). 

74 The La Follette Committee reported that UAW membership in Flint was down 
from 26,000 in 1934 to 120 in 1936. Fine reports that in June 1935 the five Flint 
locals had 757 paid-up members, the GM Detroit locals 423 members, and the remain¬ 
ing GM locals in Michigan 65 members (41, 71). 

75 Fine does not think this is the whole truth. He points out that by August 1936 the 
CIO had three organizers in the auto industry, but agrees that prior to the GM sit- 
downs, the CIO did not make the kind of commitment that it was making in the steel 
industry (93). In fact, Adolph Germer, Lewis’ representative in the UAW, thwarted 
the formation of a GM council among the unionists in an effort to forestall the GM 
confrontation (92-93). 




150 


Poor People’s Movements 

In steel, where the CIO had intended to begin organizing, the 
workers were already prepared for action and often searched out 
Lewis and the SWOC: 

I became president of the Associated Employees, and then we heard 
about a man named John Lewis who was very interested in trying 
to organize the unorganized. I wrote him a letter and said we had 
an independent union that would like to join up. He wrote back 
and told me if I held my short tail in he’d be down there in the 
near future and he’d send a man by the name of Philip Murray 
(Lynd, 1969, 57-58). 

John Sargent, another steel organizer, recounts the situation at 
Inland Steel: 

Without a contract; without any agreement with the company; 
without any regulations concerning hours of work, conditions 
of work, or wages, a tremendous surge took place. We talk of a 
rank-and-file movement: the beginning of union organization was 
the best type of rank-and-file movement you could think of. John 
L. Lewis sent in a few organizers, but there were no organizers at 
Youngstown Sheet and Tube. The union organizers were essentially 
workers in the mill who were so disgusted with their conditions 
and so ready for a change that they took the union into their 
own hands. . . . For example, as a result of the enthusiasm of the 
people in the mill, you had a series of strikes, wildcats, shut-downs, 
slow-downs, anything working people could think of to secure for 
themselves what they decided they had to have (Lynd, 1969, 74). 

Len De Caux captures the temper of the movement: 

The workers were waiting for CIO, pounding on its doors long 
before CIO was ready for them. I heard the pounding as soon as 
I started with CIO late in 1935—in delegations, on the phone, in 
the mail, in the news. It came from within the AFL, and from 
all the unorganized industries. . . . We heard from auto and rubber 
workers, seamen; from radio, electrical, shipyard, furniture, textile, 
steel, lumber workers; from gas, coke, glass and quarry workers; 
from sharecroppers, newspapermen. . . . All said “CIO, let’s go!” 
(226). 

Who, then, was mobilizing men and women in the plants and 
the shipyards and the shops to say ‘‘CIO, let’s go”? In many industries 
rank-and-file organizers emerged, apparently thrust naturally into 
leadership by the sheer force of the workers’ movement. In a num¬ 
ber of industries, these rank-and-file leaders were also ideological 



151 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


radicals, socialists of one variety or another, whose militancy owed 
some of its fervor to their larger commitment to societal transforma¬ 
tion, and to the moral and tangible support they received from like- 
minded radicals. In many strikes radicals who were not workers also 
joined in by providing a variety of supportive services to the strikers. 
Thus members of the old Industrial Workers of the World were 
active in some of the early auto strikes in 1933. In 1934, Musteites 
and Communists took the lead in encouraging strikers in Toledo 
to defy the courts. Trotskyists led the mobilization of striking team¬ 
sters in Minneapolis; and Communists and other radical rank-and- 
file longshoremen spurred the San Francisco dock strike, while a 
Communist-dominated Maritime Workers Industrial Union helped 
to spread the walkout. 

Of all the radical groups, the Communists are generally agreed 
to have been the most influential, 76 and they were clearly an instiga¬ 
ting force in the automobile and maritime industries, where small 
Communist nuclei served as key centers of agitation and mobiliza¬ 
tion. It may be useful, therefore, to pause to understand the role of 
the Communists, and how they came to play it. 

The Communist Party entered the depression after a decade of 
isolation and decline. 77 At the beginning of the 1920s the party had 
established the Trade Union Educational League, dedicated to work¬ 
ing within AFL unions to build industrial union organizations. Dur¬ 
ing this period the Communists were virtually alone in their support 
of several desperation strikes in textiles and in mining. “Through 
the painful isolation of the twenties,” writes Paul Buhle, “the Com¬ 
munists had tried first one formula, then another, in their attempts 
to reach the masses” (193). By the end of the decade the series of 
failures and a campaign of Communist expulsions by the AFL coin¬ 
cided with a change in Comintern policy, leading the party to adopt 
a new strategy of establishing independent (or “dual”) unions. The 
Trade Union Educational League was reconstituted as the Trade 
Union Unity League in 1928, and some of the bitter early strikes of 
the depression were led by Communists affiliated with TUUL. 


76 This was even the assessment of Max Shachtman, himself a Trotskyist, who wrote 
that during the thirties, “It is no exaggeration to say that 95 percent of the people who 
became radicals in that time became Communists or moved within the orbit of [Com¬ 
munist] leadership ..." (quoted in Keeran, 187). 

77 Party membership fell from about 16,000 in early 1925 to 9,500 at the end of the 
1920s (Weinstein, 40). 




152 


Poor People’s Movements 

As early as 1928 the scattering of Communists in the auto industry 
—perhaps only two or three in a factory—began publishing shop 
papers named the Ford Worker, Packard Worker, Hudson Worker, 
and the Fisher Body Worker (Prickett, 110), and otherwise pressed 
to build the Auto Workers Union, now affiliated with TUUL. 

It was a slow, difficult, unglamorous task. A meeting called after 
the wage cuts in the Briggs Waterloo plant drew only two workers. 

A week later, a second meeting was held with only four workers. 
They decided to organize first around a single grievance; the prac¬ 
tice of having men work two lathes. . . . The small nucleus of 
workers continued to meet and regularly distributed small leaflets 
which were passed hand-to-hand inside the plant (Prickett, 122). 

The Communists worked with the mainly defensive auto strikes of 
this period, but they did not lead them and, as one party leader said 
at the time, they “did not really get a foothold in the factories.” 

The rise of worker defiance after the passage of the NIRA created 
a new opportunity for the Communists. Workers were angry and 
hopeful, eager for action, and rank-and-file Communists helped them 
to act. As the unionization drive gained momentum during 1934 
and 1935 the party, determined to work within the union movement, 
abandoned dual unionism, softened its criticism of the AFL, and 
Communists within the plants downplayed the party’s political line 
in favor of an emphasis on workplace grievances. 78 At this stage, the 
Communists approached the issue of unionism as agitators from 
below, trying to goad the workers on by exposing the compromises of 
the New Deal 79 and of the AFL leadership, insisting that if workers 
were to win concessions, they had to rely “on mass action and not 
upon the promises of the NRA and high paid [union] officials” 
(quoted in Keeran, 124). During this period, in other words, the 


78 Party leaders criticized Communists in Cleveland, for example, because they were “so 
busy with the important details of union organization, that the Party is completely 
forgotten as far as concrete work in the shop is concerned.” And the party scored one of 
the auto shop papers for ignoring political issues (Keeran, 162). 

79 Prickett quotes a speech by John Stachel, the party’s trade union director, which 
shows the party’s awareness of the usefulness of New Deal rhetoric in stirring workers: 
“Secondly, Roosevelt talks higher wages against sweatshops, and carries on investigations 
against Morgan and Company, etc. As far as the workers are concerned, they have great 
illusions, they believe in all that, and precisely because of their illusions, they become 
indignant and are more ready to take up the struggle. Roosevelt says no sweatshops. 
Good, we fight against them. Roosevelt says high wages. Very good, let’s get high 
wages. . . . The Recovery Bill and the Roosevelt program are a double-edged sword 
which we can utilize for the shattering of the very illusions he is trying to create” (156). 




153 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


Communists worked to build the movement, to stimulate anger and 
to encourage defiance. Because they worked to build the movement, 
the movement yielded the Communists some influence, at least while 
the defiant upsurge among the ranks continued. Keeran reports, for 
example, that before the GM strike a nucleus at the Cleveland 
Fisher Body shop had a dozen or so members, but then the nucleus 
grew to fifty (244). The persistence and determination of the Com¬ 
munists during the years of isolation and defeat before the depres¬ 
sion were now being redeemed. 

But the workers, and the Communists, were fighting for unioniza¬ 
tion, and it was the CIO that emerged the victor from the struggle. It 
was Lewis’ genius to sense the unrest of the time and to move to 
capture and lead it, willingly sweeping in the Communist organizers 
whose discipline and fervor were helping to build his organization. 
John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations did not 
create the strike movement of industrial workers; it was the strike 
movement that created the CIO. In the longer run it did this mainly 
by forcing the federal government to protect unionization by law, 
and to enforce that protection administratively. 


THE STATE ORGANIZES LABOR 

To a large extent it was the National Labor Relations Board estab¬ 
lished under the Wagner Act that organized the member unions 
of the CIO. To an even greater extent it was the NLRB that kept 
the CIO unions organized in the face of the forces that had eroded 
union membership during earlier periods. The NLRB built and 
protected union membership in several ways. It effectively eliminated 
the use of such employer weapons as yellow dog contracts, labor spies, 
and even anti union propaganda. It required employers to bargain 
collectively with the elected representatives of a majority of the work¬ 
ers. And it provided a government mechanism for conducting the 
actual elections. 

During earlier periods union organization had depended on con¬ 
tinual efforts by organizers to maintain the affiliation of workers. 
These efforts, difficult at best, were doomed when employers could 
easily replace workers. But the NLRB changed that, for it “put the 
coercive power of government to extort union recognition from their 



154 


Poor People’s Movements 

employers at the disposal of employees’' (Greenstone, 47). 80 In 
1938 the board in effect reversed the defeat in Little Steel, ordering 
the reinstatement of strikers, the elimination of company unions, 
and forbidding anti-union activities by the steel corporations (Bern¬ 
stein, 1971, 727-728). Altogether in its first five years the NLRB 
handled nearly 30,000 cases, settling 2,161 strikes, and holding 5,954 
elections and card checks in which two million workers voted (Bern¬ 
stein, 1971, 652-653). By 1945 the board had handled 74,000 cases 
involving unfair labor practices and employee representation issues, 
and had held 24,000 elections to determine collective bargaining 
agents for six million workers (Raybeck, 345). 

As a result union membership grew. By the end of 1937 the CIO 
could claim 32 affiliated national and international unions, includ¬ 
ing the giant mass production unions in steel, autos, coal, and rubber. 
In addition it had chartered 600 local industrial unions, and 80 
state and city central councils. Membership had grown from less than 
a million in December 1936 to 3,700,000. Meanwhile, the AFL also 
prospered—sometimes because employers rushed to sign up with an 
AFL union in order to ward off the more militant CIO 81 —and mem¬ 
bership in affiliated AFL unions rose to about equal that of the CIO. 82 
Just as quickly, the organizational apparatus of the unions expanded; 


80 in an interesting argument, Mancur Olson reasons that no matter what the collective 
gains to be made by unionism, the affiliation of large numbers could not be maintained 
even under the most favorable circumstances, precisely because these gains were col¬ 
lective, and therefore could not be divided up as rewards for affiliation, or withheld as 
sanctions for nonaffiliation. Consequently, there was little incentive for the individual 
to maintain his contribution to the union. Government coercion, after 1937, overcame 
these rationalistic obstacles to unionism. 

81 The AFL clearly tried to take advantage of its more conservative image in its dealing 
with employers. Thus Arthur Wharton, head of the International Association of 
Machinists, sent a directive to IAM officers in the spring of 1937 that read in part: “The 
purpose of this is to direct all officers and all representatives to contact employers in 
your locality as a preliminary to organizing the shops and factories. We have not 
hesitated to tell the employers we have met that the best manner in which to deal with 
us is on the closed shop basis, because we are then in a position where we can require 
the members to observe the provisions of any agreement entered into, this with our 
well-known policy of living up to agreements gives the employer the benefits he is 
entitled to receive from contracts with our organization and it also places us in a 
position to prevent sit-downs, sporadic disturbances, slowdowns and other communistic 
CIO tactics of disruption and disorganization” (Quoted in Matles and Higgins, 48). 

82 Derber uses estimates of the increase of union penetration between 1930 and 1940 as 
follows: transportation, communication, and public utilities from 23 to 48 percent; 
mining, quarrying, and oil from 21 to 72 percent; and manufacturing as a whole from 
9 to 34 percent (17). Overall, according to the U. S. Department of Labor, union 
membership as a percent of the nonagricultural labor force increased from 11 percent 
in 1933, to 27 percent in 1940 (U. S. Department of Labor, 1972). 




155 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


by 1937 the CIO had established a network of forty-eight regional 
offices staffed by several hundred field representatives (Levinson, 275; 
Bernstein, 1971, 684). 


The Consequences of Organization 

The spirit generated by mass strikes had helped build the industrial 
unions. The disruptive political force exerted by mass strikes had 
compelled the federal government to establish a framework that 
would protect the unions over time. But once established, the unions 
in turn did not promote disruption, either in economic or in poli¬ 
tical spheres. 


ORGANIZATION AND ECONOMIC POWER 

To the contrary, the unions undertook from the outset to maintain 
internal discipline in the factories in exchange for recognition. This 
in fact was their trump card in bargaining with management at a 
time when spontaneous work stoppages were plaguing industry. Thus 
the principal GM negotiator at the end of the Flint sit-downs com¬ 
plained bitterly that there had been eighteen sit-downs in GM plants 
in the previous twenty days. The agreement that GM signed with 
the UAW obligated the union to ensure that there would be no 
work stoppages until an elaborate grievance procedure had been ex¬ 
hausted, and UAW officials had given their approval (Fine, 305, 
325). 83 


83 There were, nevertheless, a rash of work stoppages immediately after the agreement 
was signed. Walsh reports 200 stoppages by the end of June 1937 (134); Keeran reports 
that in the first two months following the GM settlement, General Motors workers 
engaged in 30 wildcat strikes, and in the two years between June 1937 and 1939, GM 
reported 270 work stoppages or slowdowns, Chrysler 109, Hudson over 50, and Packard 
31 (292). Montgomery makes the point that, for the workers, “recognition of their 
unions tended to unleash shop floor struggles in the first instance, rather than to con¬ 
tain them” (73). But while the victory of union recognition no doubt gave the workers 
heart, the union itself disavowed the stoppages and, according to Walsh, promised to 
punish the union members responsible (134). In September 1937 Homer Martin, 
president of the auto workers’ union, sent General Motors a “letter of responsibility” 
granting the company the right to fire any employee whom the company claimed to be 
guilty of provoking an unauthorized stoppage (Keeran, 302). 



156 


Poor People's Movements 

The CIO had never actually endorsed sit-downs, but with recogni¬ 
tion it disavowed them.The Communists, by now well into their 
Popular Front phase and some of them into the union bureaucracy 
as well, endorsed the call for union discipline. Wyndham Mortimer 
issued a statement early in 1937 saying: “Sitdown strikes should be 
resorted to only when absolutely necessary" (Keeran, 294). And the 
Flint Auto Worker , edited by Communist Henry Kraus, editorialized 
that "the problem is not to foster strikes and labor trouble. The 
union can only grow on the basis of established procedure and collec¬ 
tive bargaining" (Keeran, 294). Accordingly both the GM and the 
U. S. Steel contracts signed later in 1937 prohibited local strikes 
(DeCaux, xv). 

Matles and Higgins offer a similar explanation of the United Elec¬ 
trical Workers' early successes in negotiating contracts with General 
Electric and Westinghouse. At General Electric: 

There was a tremendous restlessness among the workers in the 
company plants. Countless complaints piling up. Spontaneous stop¬ 
pages more the rule than the exception. This was poor business 
for a company which had always operated on the principle that its 
“contented” work force meant steady production and a steady 
flow of profits. Swope and GE had to be aware that the old system 
of paternalism had broken down, and that something was needed 
to take its place if production and profits were to be maximized 
—especially in tight depression conditions (83). 

At Westinghouse: 

[C]onstant stoppages, sitdowns, slowdowns, and piled-up grievances 
plagued production, as workers became steadily more militant and 
aggressive. So much so that the company began to get rumblings 
of dissatisfaction from various plant managers, who favored reach¬ 
ing agreements with the union if only to get on with the business 
of production. Westinghouse top officers had miscalculated. While 
Swope’s GE agreement with the union had instituted orderly 
grievance procedure, the Westinghouse foremen and managers were 
up to their necks in snarls (122). 

"It made sense" Bernstein points out, "to negotiate with responsible 
union officials like John L. Lewis, rather than with desperate local 
groups" (1971, 468). 

If particular industrialists realized the advantages of unionism 
only under extreme duress, the federal government soon ensured 



157 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


the wide adoption of the union alternative with the passage of the 
Wagner Act. “We learn from experience,” said William M. Leiser- 
son, testifying in favor of the act, “that the only way we will ever 
have peace ... is to say that . . . employees have the same right to 
associate themselves and act through a body that the investors . . . 
have” (Bernstein, 1971, 333). Taft and Ross sum up the whole of 
federal labor policy in just these terms: 

A fundamental purpose of the national labor policy, first enunciated 
by the Wagner Act and confirmed by its subsequent amendments 
in the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Acts, was the substitution 
of orderly procedures for trials of combat. But in balancing the 
public interest in the peaceful settlement of industrial disputes 
with the freedom of labor and management to work out their 
problems in light of their needs and experience, the law did not 
outlaw the exercise of economic force. . . . However, this approval 
of the strike, the picket line, and the maintenance of hard bargain¬ 
ing lines by employers and unions was limited by the establishment 
of specified rules of conduct imposed on all parties (378-379). 

And the unions kept their part of the bargain. Between contracts, 
the unions tried to curb work stoppages and maintain production. As 
time went on, the length of contracts and the duration of labor 
peace increased, and by 1950 the UAW signed a five-year no-strike 
contract with General Motors with no protection against the speed¬ 
up. In 1956, George Meany, president of the now merged AFL-CIO, 
boasted to the National Association of Manufacturers: 

I never went on strike in my life, I never ordered anyone else to 
run a strike in my life, I never had anything to do with a picket 
line. ... In the final analysis, there is not a great deal of differ¬ 
ence between the things I stand for and the things that the 
National Association of Manufacturers stands for (quoted in 
Georgakas and Surkin, 39). 

In 1973 the United Steelworkers of America moved even further in 
the direction of labor-management cooperation by signing an accord 
with ten major steel firms committing the union not to strike, sub¬ 
mitting issues to binding arbitration instead (New York Times , June 
5, 1973). When the agreement was signed, the Steelworkers had in 
any case not struck in fourteen years, and during that time they had 
fallen from the highest paid industrial workers to fourteenth on the 



158 


Poor People’s Movements 

list (Bogdanich, 172). 84 Other unions, including the Seafarers Union, 
followed suit, signing agreements to use third-party methods for 
resolving grievances in place of the strike. 

Whether, by agreeing to refrain from leading work stoppages be¬ 
tween contracts, the unions actually succeeded in reducing disrup¬ 
tions of production is not immediately self-evident. 85 Work stoppages 
occurred nevertheless. But the unions had undertaken the responsi¬ 
bility for trying to control the rank and file, standing as buffers be¬ 
tween workers and management. In part, the unions did this by intro¬ 
ducing some of the rituals of democratic representation into the 
work place, rituals which tended to delegitimize worker defiance 
when it did occur. In part, the union’s role as regulator was im¬ 
plemented through elaborate grievance procedures which were sub¬ 
stituted for direct action; these procedures tended to divert and 
dilute anger more effectively than they secured redress. Union dis¬ 
ciplinary procedures also reflected this regulatory role, for the unions 
now either sanctioned company punishments against workers, or, 


84 During this fourteen-year period the steel companies simply built up inventories in 
anticipation of the end of each three-year contract, a practice in which the union 
collaborated, so that the no-strike accord was not really itself much of a change in the 
way the union performed (Bogdanich, 172). 

85 Radical historians have generally argued that the unions did in fact discipline the 
work force, and thus promoted industrial rationalization. They have also argued that 
the unions facilitated rationalization by collaborating with industry in capital intensi¬ 
fication schemes. The latter argument seems to us weak, on both historical and logical 
grounds. The mechanization of the steel industry and the rationalization of production 
methods in steel was accomplished only after industrialists had succeeded in destroying 
the existing union of skilled workers, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Tin and 
Steel Workers. The famous lockout by Carnegie at Homestead was the first battle in 
the planful campaign by the industry to destroy the union, and it was only after the 
union was decimated that mechanization took place (Stone). Moreover, it does not 
make sense to think that the absence of any unions at all, whether to resist or to col¬ 
laborate, would have been an obstacle to capital intensification in the post-World War 
II period (when major unions such as the UAW, the UMW, and the ILA did in fact 
collaborate in such plans). 

The first argument is, however, more central to our analysis, and it seems to us that 
the evidence is still inconclusive. There is not much question that the unions undertook 
the responsibility for maintaining uninterrupted production, but the strike waves of the 
1940s and 1950s raise serious questions about their success at their appointed task. To 
clarify that issue, one would at a minimum need reasonably precise time-series data on 
man-days lost through strikes as a proportion of the work force, broken down by 
unionized and nonunionized sectors. The usual aggregate data on rising productivity 
rates in the manufacturing sector subsequent to unionization are not definitive. 
Unionization may well have accompanied rising productivity without playing an im¬ 
portant role in making it possible. 




159 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


beginning in World War II, undertook themselves to punish the 
leaders of local wildcats. 86 

What had happened, quite simply, was that the organizations bom 
out of the workers’ protests had become over time less and less 
dependent on workers, and more and more dependent on the regular 
relations established with management. This movement away from 
workers and towards management was, in part, a natural result of 
the tendency toward oligarchy in formal organizations. Thus Matles 
and Higgins write of the CIO leadership during the war years: “In¬ 
dustrial union leaders, rubbing shoulders in the giddy Washington 
scene with ‘big government’ and ‘big industry’ figures, were being 
transformed—although most of them hardly knew it—into ‘labor 
statesmen’ ” (164). 87 In part, it was the result of the dependence of 
the unions for their own organizational stability on the well-being 
of the industry. Thus B. J. Widick writes: 

With rare exceptions, unions have joined with employers in seek¬ 
ing relief from taxes and government regulations, or in asking Con¬ 
gress to provide other assistance, be it tariffs, money or whatever. 
The railroad brotherhoods have urged Congress to lend railroads 
more funds; the communications workers union worries about the 


86 The UAW negotiated company security clauses with Chrysler and Ford as early as 
1945 which explicitly gave plant management the right to discipline workers who en¬ 
gaged in unauthorized strikes (Lichtenstein, 67). C. Wright Mills reports a subsequent 
UAW proposal in 1946 in which the union would undertake prosecution (for a penalty 
or discharge) of “any employer or employees found guilty of instigating, fomenting, or 
giving leadership to an unauthorized stoppage of work.” Shortly afterwards, a local of 
the Steelworkers signed a contract under which the union could be financially liable for 
the costs of strikes or work stoppages. For vivid contemporary accounts of the UAW 
as disciplinarian of rank-and-file insurgents, see also Gamson; Georgakas and Surkin; 
Ward; and Weir. 

Michels had long before explained why the unions were useful in this role: “The 
masses are far more subject to their leaders than to their governments, and they bear 
from the former abuses of power which they would never tolerate from the latter . . . 
they do not perceive the tyranny of the leaders they have themselves chosen” (154). 

87 It is again worth remembering Michels’ sober warnings: “For the great majority of 
men, idealism alone is an inadequate incentive for the fulfillment of duty. Enthusiasm 
is not an article which can be kept long in store. Men who will stake their bodies and 
their lives for a moment, or even for some months in succession, on behalf of a great 
idea often prove incapable of permanent work in the service of the same idea when the 
sacrifices demanded are comparatively trifling. . . . Consequently, even in the labour 
movement, it is necessary that the leaders should receive a prosaic reward in addition 
to the devotion of their comrades and the satisfaction of a good conscience” (126). It 
is perhaps needless to add that when many of these prosaic rewards are controlled by 
government and industry, so will the leaders of the labor movement be oriented to 
government and industry. 




160 


Poor People’s Movements 

antitrust action against AT 8c T; the steelworkers join industry in 
demanding tariffs or quotas on steel imports; the auto workers union 
supports the Big Three’s arguments for delaying emission-control 
deadlines; in the trucking industry Teamsters’ lobbyists are work¬ 
ing effectively at state and national levels to obtain an easing of 
load limitations, or to find fuel for its carriers; the clothing and 
textile unions seek to protect their employees from the competition 
of “cheap foreign goods” (170). 

Finally, the orientation of the unions toward management was facil¬ 
itated by the severing of union leadership from dependence on the 
rank and file, first through their reliance on the federal government 
for membership gains, and then through the dues check-off. 88 As a 
black auto worker wrote in 1970: 

The automatic dues check-off system has removed the union entirely 
from any dependence on its membership. The huge treasuries, origi¬ 
nally conceived to stockpile ammunition for class warfare, have put 
the unions in the banking, real estate, and insurance business 
(quoted in Georgakas and Surkin, 45). 

The logical outcome of the bargain the unions had struck is 
summed up by John Laslett, writing about an earlier period of 
American labor history: 

The notion of contract implies a recognition by the union of its 
responsibilities for the enforcement of the agreement, which some¬ 
times placed even radical union leadership in the seemingly anoma¬ 
lous position of having to act against its own constituency, when 
the contract was violated by members of the rank and file. Thus, 
the price which the union had to pay for the benefits it received 
was to become part of the productive system itself . . . (297 ff). 89 


8 * During the Second World War years, the unions had become accustomed to winning 
membership gains without strikes. "After 1942, labor-board elections and decisions made 
strikes for union recognition unnecessary, maintenance-of-membership clauses ensured 
a steady flow of dues into union treasuries, and inexperienced union oflicials sat side 
by side with federal and corporate executives in manpower, labor-board and war- 
production hearings” (Schatz, 194). 

89 C. L. R. James makes the most condemning judgment of all: "The history of pro¬ 
duction since [the creation of the CIO] is the corruption of the bureaucracy and its 
transformation into an instrument of capitalist production, the restoration to the 
bourgeoisie of what it had lost in 1936, the right to control production standards. 
Without this mediating role of the bureaucracy, production in the United States would 
be violently and continuously disrupted until one class was undisputed master” (23). 




161 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


Nor were those union leaders who were Communists immune from 
these influences, for as their organizational roles in the CIO devel¬ 
oped, their politics became more ambiguous. Radical ideology was 
no defense against the imperatives created by organizational mainten¬ 
ance. 90 


ORGANIZATION AND ELECTORAL POWER 

The unions not only limited the disruptive force of workers in the 
factories, they limited their disruptive impact in electoral politics as 
well. Before we go on to explain this point, however, we have to 
tell something of the efforts of the unions to become a significant 
force in electoral politics. 

By the end of 1937 the labor unions had nearly eight million 
workers on their membership rolls, and membership continued to 
grow during the war years. If the organization of large numbers is 
what matters for power in electoral politics, then the labor unions 
ought to have been a substantial force from the outset and, as their 
membership grew, their influence ought to have grown. But this 
was not the case. 

The organizational phase of the industrial workers’ movement be¬ 
gan just as the turbulent phase was cresting. While in 1936 the 
new CIO had not yet enrolled the millions of members it was soon 
to gain, it still began life with the not inconsiderable membership 
of the mine workers’ and the garment workers’ unions. And, from 
the beginning, the CIO tried to use its organizational apparatus and 
membership to exert influence in Washington through conventional 
electoral politics. Prodded by the rise of business opposition to the 
New Deal, and the sharp decline in business campaign contributions, 
the CIO launched a massive campaign to reelect the president in 
1936. Labor’s Non-Partisan League was established as the vehicle of 
union efforts, and the league’s workers, operating very much like a 
party campaign organization—going on the radio, staging rallies, 


eo Prickett, an historian who is sympathetic to the Communists, nevertheless points out 
that as their organizational positions in the CIO consolidated, the political views of the 
Communists became obscure, and their ties with the Communist rank and file and with 
the party became tenuous (392). 



162 


Poor People’s Movements 

passing out thousands of leaflets, and spending nearly a million dol¬ 
lars—began to contact voters in the industrial states of New York, 
Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio (Schlesinger, 1960, 594; Greenstone, 
49). In New York City, needle-trades union leaders resigned from the 
Socialist Party to join with Communists in creating the American 
Labor Party, making it easier for leftists who were reluctant to vote 
the Democratic ticket to back the New Deal. Roosevelt polled some 
270,000 votes in New York on the ALP ticket. Later, the ALP also 
led the campaign for the reelection of Fiorello LaGuardia as mayor 
(Raybeck, 357; Schlesinger, 1960, 594). Meanwhile, the constituent 
unions of the CIO contributed $770,000 to Roosevelt’s campaign 
chest, most of it from the mine workers’ treasury. The magnitude of 
this contribution is suggested by the fact that during the previous 
thirty years the AFL executive had contributed only $95,000 to 
national political campaigns (Pelling, 166). 

The election of 1936 was, of course, only the first step on the new 
course in pursuit of electoral influence. In 1938 the CIO lobby 
backed Roosevelt’s Supreme Court reform, as well as an array of 
other New Deal legislative measures, and during the campaign the 
CIO distributed a bulletin called “How to Organize and Conduct a 
Local Political Campaign’’ (Greenstone, 49). Meanwhile Walter 
Reuther resigned from the Socialist Party to back Democrat Frank 
Murphy in the Michigan gubernatorial contest (Bernstein, 1971, 
780). In 1940 John L. Lewis himself opposed Roosevelt, 91 but the 
CIO nevertheless gave FDR its overwhelming support: union dele¬ 
gates participated in the Democratic convention, and Roosevelt ran 
strongest in counties with high concentrations of CIO members. 92 
In fact the CIO’s commitment to Democratic Party politics had 
already become so firm that Lewis’ split with Roosevelt earned him 
nothing but the enmity of union leadership, and he resigned as 
president of the CIO. In 1943 the CIO expanded its investment in 


oi According to De Caux, “Lewis was determined, if he died politically in the attempt, 
not to let Roosevelt take labor for granted/' and he was furious with other CIO leaders 
“for sacrificing CIO bargaining power by offering FDR unconditional support” (357). 
Lewis’ own decision in 1940 was to support the Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie, 
but under the circumstances it was a lost gesture. 

92 Bernstein reports an analysis of the results in sixty-three counties and fourteen cities 
which showed that the strength of the Roosevelt vote paralleled the concentration of 
CIO members (1971, 720). Schattschneider also reports polls taken at the time that 
showed CIO membership voted 79 and 78 percent Democratic in the 1940 and 1944 
elections (49). 




163 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


Democratic electoral politics 93 with the creation of the Political 
Action Committee (PAC), which developed a sophisticated and well- 
financed campaign organization, in some places capable of canvas¬ 
sing entire communities, from the precinct level up, operating in 
the primaries as well as the elections. Loyalty was the keynote: PAC 
discouraged its state units from challenging local Democratic parties 
in order to “weld together the unity of all forces who support the 
commander in chief behind a single progressive win-the-war candi¬ 
date for each office” (quoted in Lichtenstein, 61). 94 PAC was widely 
credited with a crucial role in the Democratic victory of 1944, in 
which every CIO constituent union endorsed Roosevelt and the CIO 
spent some $1,328,000 (Pelling, 180). In 1948 the AFL followed the 
CIO lead by forming Labor’s League for Political Education, which 
cooperated with PAC on campaign activities. With the merger of 
the AFL and the CIO in 1955 the Committee on Political Education 
(COPE) was established, and the investment of the unions in electoral 
politics and the Democratic Party continued to increase (Greenstone, 
52-60). 95 In other words the unions had succeeded in following the 
prescribed American model for political influence; they had enlisted 
ever larger numbers of workers as members, and had combined the 
financial and voting resources of those members to exert influence 
through the channels of the electoral system. The question is, what 
did they get for their troubles? 


03 The CIO speeded up its campaign activity because of passage of the Smith-Connally 
Act which, among other antiunion provisions, prohibited union contributions to candi¬ 
dates in federal elections. To evade this restriction, the CIO engaged in “political 
education” well in advance of the elections (De Caux, 339-440). 

®4 Lichtenstein goes on to say about the 1944 elections: “Where sentiment for an 
independent voice remained strong and threatened to disrupt an alliance with the 
Democrats, Hillman mobilized PAC forces to defeat it. In New York Hillman linked his 
once and-Communist Amalgamated Clothing Workers with the Communist unions of 
the city to win control of the ALP from the Dubinsky social democrats and to make 
the state labor party an uncritical adjunct of the Democratic Party there. In Michigan, 
where a viable Democratic Party hardly existed, the PAC successfully fought efforts by 
some UAW radicals to put the state Political Action Committee on record as supporting 
only those Democratic candidates pledged to a guaranteed annual income and other 
well-publicized CIO bargaining demands” (61). 

®5 However, the involvement of members in electoral politics clearly declined. Green¬ 
stone comments: “Two decades after World War II, a ‘crisis’ was most evident with 
regard to a decline in political interest among the rank and file and in the radicalism 
of union officials. By contrast, the commitment of organizational resources dramatically 
increased” (58). 




164 


Poor People’s Movements 

In fact, from the outset, organized labor got very little. Lewis 
thought that his dramatic gestures of support in the 1936 election, 
including the huge contribution to campaign expenses, would win 
Roosevelt’s support in the auto and steel struggles. During the Flint 
sit-downs, Lewis named the quid pro quo he expected: 

For six months the economic royalists represented by General 
Motors contributed their money and used their energy to drive 
this administration out of power. The administration asked labor 
for help and labor gave it. The same economic royalists now have 
their fangs in labor. The workers of this country expect the admin¬ 
istration to help the workers in every legal way, and to support 
the workers in General Motors plants (quoted in Raybeck, 368). 

Lewis’ assessment was accurate; GM leaders were among Roosevelt’s 
most vigorous opponents in the 1936 election. But his expectations 
were misplaced. When Roosevelt did finally intervene in the GM 
strike, it was reluctantly and cautiously. He intervened, not because 
he was politically beholden to union leadership, but because he was 
forced to do so by the escalating crisis in Flint. Again, in the Little 
Steel strike, when Roosevelt was reported to have called down “a 
plague on both your houses,” Lewis claimed betrayal: “It ill be¬ 
hooves one who has supped at Labor’s table and who has been 
sheltered in Labor’s house to curse with equal fervor and fine im¬ 
partiality both Labor and its adversaries when they become locked 
in deadly embrace” (quoted in Raybeck, 368). 

But whatever lesson was to be learned was lost on CIO leaders 
(except perhaps for John L. Lewis himself). Although the invest¬ 
ment of the unions in electoral politics increased, the ability of labor 
unions to protect the gains that had been won in the mid-1930s 
rapidly diminished. The strike wave had subsided by 1938, its mo¬ 
mentum broken by the bitter defeat in Little Steel. Meanwhile busi¬ 
ness and government had begun a two-pronged assault on industrial 
unionism that was to culminate a decade later in the passage of the 
Taft-Hartley Act. One prong was the launching of a red-baiting 
campaign that severely weakened the unions internally by stimulat¬ 
ing bitter factionalism and ultimately resulted in the purging of 
more militant Communist elements. The other prong was a cam¬ 
paign to limit the new protections won for unions under the Wagner 
Act. 

The red purge in the CIO that is ordinarily located in the post- 



165 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


war McCarthy period actually began in 1938. It was merely inter¬ 
rupted by the war years, and then resumed vigorously in the late 
1940s. The beginning of the campaign was signaled in 1938 by 
widely publicized hearings of the House Un-American Activities 
Committee under Chairman Martin Dies. John Frey testified and the 
New York Times headlined his message the next day: “Communists 
Rule the CIO, Frey of the AFL Testifies: He names 248 Reds” 
(Matles and Higgins, 104-105; Prickett, 374). Meanwhile the CIO 
was assaulted by unfavorable press and radio commentary depicting 
the unions as violent and communistic, or at the very least, “irre¬ 
sponsible” (De Caux, 291-292), while the National Association of 
Manufacturers financed the printing of two million copies of a pam¬ 
phlet which depicted John L. Lewis holding a picket sign aloft that 
read, “Join the CIO and Build a Soviet America” (Matles and 
Higgins, 118). 

By 1939 the signs were clear that the political tide had turned and 
measures to erode the concessions that labor had won began to be 
implemented. Under pressure from southern Democrats and Re¬ 
publicans in Congress, the NLRB was reconstituted to eliminate its 
pro-labor members; 96 the Supreme Court ruled that sit-downs were 
illegal; and state legislatures began to pass laws prohibiting some 
kinds of strikes and secondary, boycotts, limiting picketing, out¬ 
lawing the closed shop, requiring the registration of unions, limiting 
the amount of dues unions could charge, and providing stiff jail 
terms for violations of the new offenses. By 1947 almost all of the 
states had passed legislation imposing at least some of these limita¬ 
tions. 

World War II did not interrupt the campaign to curb labor gains, 
but it greatly confused the issues by allowing government and 
industry to define questions of labor policy as questions of patriotism. 
In fact the policies of the Roosevelt Administration toward its 
staunch labor allies during the war years clearly revealed how much 
the influence of the rank and file had diminished. When war prepara¬ 
tion began in earnest after the election of 1940, the demand for 


96 Harry Millis, a University of Chicago economist who had served on the pre-Wagner 
Act NLB, and who had been very much involved in the development of the Wagner 
Act, later wrote that by the mid-forties, the board was “leaning over backward to be 
fair to employers,” and generally failing to enforce the protections of the Wagner Act 
(Millis and Brown). 




166 


Poor People’s Movements 

labor suddenly soared. This was a boom such as American workers 
had not seen for a long time. Within a few months the number of 
unemployed dropped from 10 million to 4 million, and wages began 
to rise, from an average $29.88 a week in 1940 to $38.62 in December 
1941 (Raybeck, 371). A new wave of strikes swept the country as the 
unions tried to enlist the new workers, and to take advantage of the 
rising demand for labor by pressing for higher wages. 

But the Roosevelt Administration acted rapidly to suppress the 
strikes. When UAW workers at the Vultee aircraft plant in Los 
Angeles struck two weeks after the 1940 presidential election, the 
FBI and the attorney general branded the strike “Red” and govern¬ 
ment agents descended upon the strikers, who nevertheless won most 
of their demands (Green, 8-9; Keeran, 333). 97 Shortly afterwards 
UAW strikers shut down the Allis-Chalmers plant near Milwaukee; 
the local police and state militia were called out and Roosevelt 
threatened to seize the plant (Thomas Brooks, 195; Green, 9; Keeran, 
334-336). When 20,000 CIO woodworkers went on strike in the 
northwest and decided not to return to work on terms dictated by 
the federal government, the press branded it a Communist strike 
(De Caux, 396-397). When 12,000 UAW workers struck North 
American Aviation in Los Angeles, Roosevelt ordered some 3,000 
troops to take over the plant, and the strike was broken (Green, 10; 
De Caux, 398-399). In the fall of 1941 John L. Lewis, who had de¬ 
nounced Roosevelt bitterly for sending troops “to stab labor in the 
back,” called a strike in the “captive” coal mines owned by the 
major steel companies. A federal mediation board ruled against 
the workers, but Lewis responded by calling out 250,000 other coal 
miners, and the strike was won. 

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt dealt with the in¬ 
creased labor militancy by taking advantage of the upsurge of 
patriotic feeling to secure a no-strike pledge from the CIO and AFL. 
A War Labor Board was established to handle industrial disputes 
for the duration, and wages were to be set by the federal “little steel” 
formula in a program calling for “equality of sacrifice” of corpora¬ 
tions, consumers, and workers. In fact, corporate profits zoomed, 


97 Communists were in fact important in this and other strikes in the prewar period. 
Moreover since this resurgence of Communist militancy was related to the Stalin-Hitler 
pact, and the party’s branding of the European conflict as an imperialist war, there was 
some basis for the condemnation heaped upon them. 




167 


The Industrial Workers’ Movement 


prices shot up, and wages lagged behind. 98 By 1943 worker restive¬ 
ness was scarcely controllable, and the number of wildcats escalated 
rapidly. 99 But union leaders by and large kept their no-strike pledge, 
and the chairman of the War Labor Board called the policy an 
outstanding success. It was a success, for union officials were now 
themselves denouncing and containing the wildcats. 100 

Lewis and the miners bucked the trend. After rank-and-file walk¬ 
outs early in 1943, Lewis demanded a two-dollar-a-day increase with 
no stretch-out or speed-up, and pay for time traveled underground. 
The mine owners refused to negotiate, the press screamed “traitor,” 
Roosevelt threatened to use federal troops, but the miners neverthe¬ 
less walked out. Reminded of the no-strike pledge, Lewis said it was 
not a strike, but that the miners would simply not trespass on com¬ 
pany property if they had no contract. Roosevelt seized the mines, 
but the miners stayed out; he then demanded legislation that would 
permit the federal government to draft strikers, while Congress 
passed the Smith-Connally Act curbing strikes. 101 When the miners 
finally went back to work, they had won most of their demands. But 
what they had won, they had won by force of their belligerency in 
the mines, and not by their influence in the White House or in the 
halls of Congress. Of the 219 Democratic congressmen who had voted 
for Smith-Connally, 191 had been supported by PAC. 

While efforts were made to muzzle strike power during the war, 
union leaders themselves were courted by government and industry, 
and the federal government continued to protect the ability of the 
unions to retain and enlarge their membership. This was not sur¬ 
prising, for the unions were performing a valuable service. A 
member of the War Labor Board commented on this issue: “By and 
large, the maintenance of a stable union membership and responsible 
union discipline makes for keeping faithfully the terms of the 


9* Real weekly wages increased during the war, but largely as a result of longer hours. 
Workers were also now bearing the burden of new war taxes, which extended the in¬ 
come tax to millions of low-wage workers who had previously been exempt. 

99 The number of wildcats increased steadily during 1943 and 1944. Preis reports that 
the number of man-days lost in strikes more than tripled in 1943 over 1942, and by 
1944 there were, according to Brecher, more strikes than in any previous year in 
American history (223-226). 

100 Communists in the unions were among the most ardent supporters of the no-strike 
pledge, a policy dictated by the perilous situation of Soviet Russia during the war. 

101 Roosevelt vetoed the bill. Congress overrode the veto the same day. In gratitude for 
the veto, CIO leaders reaffirmed the no-strike pledge. 




168 


Poor People’s Movements 

contract, and provides a stable basis for union-management coopera¬ 
tion for more efficient production” (quoted in Brooks, Thomas, 203). 
As a result of the War Labor Board’s “maintenance of membership” 
policies, union membership grew. 102 By 1945, the CIO claimed 6 
million members, the AFL claimed nearly 7 million. If ever there was 
a time for labor to demonstrate the force of organized voting numbers 
in electoral politics, a force no longer constrained by the imperatives 
of war and the spirit of patriotism, now was the time. As it turned 
out, the force of organized voting numbers could not even ward 
off the Taft-Hartley Act. 

With war contracts canceled and servicemen demobilized when 
the war ended in the summer of 1945, unemployment rose, wages 
declined as overtime was lost, and prices continued to rise, reducing 
real take-home wages to levels below the prewar period. An un¬ 
precedented wave of strikes ensued, this time under official union 
leadership. Virtually every major industry was shut down for some 
period during 1946. President Truman responded by using his war¬ 
time powers—months after the end of the war—to seize oil refineries, 
railroads, mines, and packinghouses. When railroad workers struck 
anyway the president threatened to draft them and use the Army 
to run the railroads; 103 when the miners struck, the government 
secured an injunction, and the UMW was fined $3.5 million for its 
defiance. “We used the weapons that we had at hand,” Truman 
said afterwards, “in order to fight a rebellion against the govern¬ 
ment . . .” (quoted in Brecher, 229). Truman had proposed legisla¬ 
tion to draft strikers, but the Congress responded with its own 
plan, the Taft-Hartley Bill, substantially modifying the Wagner Act 
by specifying the rights of employers in industrial disputes and 
restricting the rights of unions. Elaborate requirements were imposed 
for the reporting of internal union procedures; non-communist 
affidavits were required of union officers on penalty of losing the 


102 in 1942 in the wake of the no-strike pledge, some industrial unions began to lose 
members and experience dues collection difficulties. The War Labor Board solved that 
problem with its modified union shop policies (Lichtenstein, 53). With the exception 
of the UMW (which had won the union shop in its 1941 strike) the board permitted 
“maintenance of membership” clauses which provided a fifteen-day escape period during 
which a new employee could quit the union. 

103 Sitkoff describes Truman’s radio speech threatening to draft strikers and give the 
Army authority to run the trains as “the most blistering antilabor speech by a President 
since that of Grover Cleveland” (85). 




169 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


services of the NLRB; 104 the closed shop was outlawed, as was the 
union shop, except where authorized by the majority of workers in 
a special ballot (and even this provision did not apply where states 
had enacted “right-to-work” laws); the check-off of union dues by 
employers was declared illegal except by written permission of the 
employee; and various forms of secondary boycotts were prohibited. 
Finally, certain strikes were to be delayed by a mandated sixty-day 
cooling-off period; strikes against the federal government were pro¬ 
hibited altogether; and the president was given special powers to 
intervene to halt strikes for eighty days which endangered the 
“national health or safety” (Pelling, 189-191). Truman, with the 
1948 elections ahead, vetoed the act. 105 The Congress overrode the 
veto by a margin of 331 to 83 in the House, and 68 to 25 in the 
Senate, freeing Truman to use the legislation to curb strikes twelve 
times in the first year after its passage (Green, 34). 106 While Taft- 
Hartley was being debated in the Congress, the Cold War was being 
created in the White House, and with it the witch hunts and purges 
of leftists that further divided and weakened the CIO in the postwar 
years. 

Taft-Hartley went far beyond the wartime actions of the federal 
government. It not only curbed the strike power, but it curbed the 
unions’ capacity to organize as well. Union membership declined in 
the years immediately following the passage of the act, and thereafter 
recovered only slowly, reaching 18.9 million in 1968. But as a per¬ 
centage of the total work force, union membership was lower in 1968 


104 Lewis once again tried to buck the trend of accommodation to government, propos¬ 
ing that if all unions refused to sign the non-communist affidavits, the provision would 
be ineffective. The AFL, with which the mine workers were again joined, turned his 
proposal down (De Caux, 478). Some of the CIO unions did resist signing, but only 
briefly (Matles and Higgins, 167-170). 

los Many analysts agree that Truman’s strategy in dealing with Taft-Hartley was cal¬ 
culated not to defeat the legislation but to gain a political advantage in the forth¬ 
coming election. Even his symbolic concession was probably necessary only because 
Henry Wallace was making a bid for labor support with his third-party candidacy. 
Truman’s strategy was successful; organized labor supported him energetically. For 
example A. F. Whitney, head of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, had threatened 
to spend his entire union treasury to defeat Truman after the president proposed to 
draft railway strikers. But the veto, Whitney announced, vindicated Truman, and sup¬ 
port for Wallace was “out of the question” (Yarnell, 22-25). For similar accounts of 
the Truman strategy on Taft-Hartley, see Sitkoff, 92-97, and Hartmann, 86-91. 

106 Adlai Stevenson, in the presidential campaign of 1952, retreated even from the 
Truman posture of strong rhetorical opposition to Taft-Hartley. See Martin, 540, 643, 
660,691. 



170 


Poor People’s Movements 

than in 1947. In the nineteen “right-to-work” states where com¬ 
pulsory open shop legislation is permitted by Taft-Hartley, union 
membership averages only half the proportion in the other states. 
These are restrictions that the unions bitterly opposed at the time, 
and that they have continued to oppose in the thirty years since the 
act was passed. But without success. 

Our discussion has thus far emphasized the losses the unions sus¬ 
tained in the specific area of government labor policy. They fared 
no better in other areas of domestic policy that affected the condi¬ 
tions of working people: they did not succeed in expanding the gains 
wrested from government in the 1930s, and in some instances they 
did not even succeed in sustaining these gains. The list of labor’s 
failures is long, but it self-evidently includes increasingly regressive 
federal income and corporate tax policies that help to erode whatever 
labor wins at the bargaining table; federal housing policies that have 
inflated the cost of workers’ housing and profited the construction 
industry; federal minimum wage standards that have not been raised 
to keep pace with real wages; the poor record of federal performance 
in the area of industrial safety; and a social security system that bears 
more and more heavily on workers because of the extremely regres¬ 
sive formula by which it is financed. 

This dismal overall record in electoral and legislative politics was 
accomplished by the largest issue-oriented voting bloc in the nation. 
In the decade between the Wagner Act that signified labor’s political 
muscle, and the Taft-Hartley Act that signified its helplessness, the 
ranks of organized labor had increased until one-third of the popula¬ 
tion was union affiliated. During that decade the unions’ organiza¬ 
tional apparatus had also enlarged and become increasingly sophisti¬ 
cated and increasingly committed to electoral politics on all levels. 
But neither this vast bloc of voters nor the sophisticated machinery 
of their organization could muster power sufficient even to resist the 
erosion of the gains won earlier, in the days before the unions had 
organized. 

Why? The answer is twofold. In part, it was that in the absence 
of a movement, the unions were not really capable of delivering the 
voting bloc they claimed to represent. The strike movement of the 
1930s, by contrast, threatened to mobilize workers as voters in a 
way that overrode the usual multiple appeals of party, section, and 
ethnicity. While the labor vote had shifted to the Democratic col¬ 
umn in the election of 1932, that vote was still insecure, and the 
industrial struggles waged by workers made it more insecure. The 



171 


The Industrial Workers* Movement 


strike movement threatened electoral disruption. But once the 
movement subsided, it was the Democratic Party, not the unions, 
that gained the ability to command the allegiance of working-class 
voters and name the issues for which allegiance would be traded. In 
the absence of the extraordinary fervor provoked by a mass protest, 
the unions played at best a subsidiary role in disciplining the 
working-class vote. 107 

Moreover, there is substantial evidence that the unions really did 
not try to use the pressure their voting members represented to 
force mass concessions from electoral leaders. Union leaders became 
more dependent on the Democratic Party (for prominence, not con¬ 
cessions) than the party was on them. Acting accordingly, union 
leaders promoted partisan allegiance, and by doing so, blunted the 
electoral impact of worker discontent. The unions became the legiti¬ 
mate political voice of industrial workers, and that legitimate voice 
spoke out repeatedly against strikers, and in support of Democratic 
leaders. 

Thus during the war years, worker discontent did not diminish. 
The war boom strike wave of 1941, and the wildcats of 1943, were 
each successively larger than the other, and larger than the strike 
wave of 1937. But discontented workers exerted little electoral force, 
and the less so because their own leaders supported the national gov¬ 
ernment’s policies. When the CIO woodworkers struck in 1941, 
Philip Murray, who had taken Lewis’ place as head of the CIO, de¬ 
nounced the woodworkers’ leadership, echoed press charges of com¬ 
munism, and demanded that the strike be called off (De Caux, 397). 
When the UAW workers struck North American Aviation the same 
year, UAW’s Aviation Director Richard Frankensteen called the 
strike “communist-inspired” on national radio, and later addressed 
a meeting of strikers to order them back to work. It was after the 
workers booed Frankensteen and ignored his order that Roosevelt 


107 Writing in 1960 Schattschneider presents interesting data to show that the unions 
could at best swing 960,000 votes in a presidential election. He arrives at this con¬ 
clusion by subtracting from the organized labor vote the percentage of workers who 
would probably have voted Democratic even if they did not belong to unions. Schatt¬ 
schneider concludes from this "that it is nearly impossible to translate pressure politics 
into party politics" (47-61). 

Even with regard to the Taft-Hartley Act, the ability of the unions to influence their 
members was limited. Thus Wilson cites poll data from the 1952 election indicating 
that only 29 percent of union members favored repeal, 41 percent had no opinion on 
the matter, and the remainder actually favored retention of the act (1973, 338-339). 


172 


Poor People’s Movements 

called out the troops (Green, 10), apparently with the approval of 
Sidney Hillman (Keeran, 340). 108 When Roosevelt seized the mines 
during the 1943 UMW strike to break the “little steel” formula, the 
executive board of the CIO repudiated Lewis and the UMW, and 
congratulated Roosevelt for his veto of the Smith-Connally Act 
despite the fact that the legislation reflected Roosevelt’s own public 
proposals. In other words even when the unions failed to curb eco¬ 
nomic disruptions by workers, they succeeded in muting the electoral 
impact of those disruptions. 


Conclusion 

The circumstances which led to the uprisings of industrial workers, 
and gave them force, were rooted in the economic and social dis¬ 
locations of the depression. Catastrophic unemployment and the 
sharp decline of wages made workers restive in the first place; the 
early moves by political elites to deal with the economic catastrophe, 
and with the electoral instability bred by catastrophe, only legitimized 
worker discontents, helping to escalate an industrial war. Still the 
federal government temporized, trying to appease both business and 
labor. But workers, seized by the spirit of the movement, refused to 
be appeased and, with industrial disorder increasing, the federal 
government’s policy failed. The disgruntled business community 
deserted the Democratic Party, clearing the way for concessions to 
labor. Then, with the workers’ movement still unabated, and with 
violence by employers escalating, reluctant political leaders finally 
chose sides and supported labor’s demands. The disruptive tactics 
of the labor movement had left them no other choice. They could 
not ignore disruptions so threatening to economic recovery and to 
electoral stability, and they could not repress the strikers, for while 
a majority of the electorate did not support the strikers, a substantial 
proportion did, 109 and many others would have reacted unpredictably 


108 Wyndham Mortimer (who was suspended from the UAW for his role as an organizer 
of the North American strike) later said that he had told the UAW leadership that 
“if the strike was authorized, the Army would not come in” (cited in Keeran, 348). 

109 Mills reports that even during the Little Steel strike, which turned public opinion 
against the strikers, 44 percent of the lower class and 18 percent of the upper class 
supported the strikers (43). 




173 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


to the serious bloodshed that repression would have necessitated. And 
so government conceded the strikers’ main demand—the right to 
organize. 

It is not likely that the worker agitations of the 1930s would have 
broken out under more stable economic conditions, and it is not 
likely that they would have had the force they did under more stable 
political conditions. In other words it required the widespread dis¬ 
locations of a deep depression for the workers’ movement to emerge, 
and to give it disruptive force in electoral spheres. Such times are 
rare and certainly not of anyone’s deliberate making. Moreover dis¬ 
ruptive political strategies, even during the infrequent periods when 
they are possible, are unpredictable and costly. The workers of the 
1930s had no guidelines on which to rely and from which to gain 
assurance and protection, for their struggles defied the conventions of 
political influence and thereby also eschewed the protections afforded 
by these conventions. The workers paid heavily for their defiance, 
in thousands arrested, hundreds injured, and many killed. But then, 
they also won. 

That industrial workers did in fact win in the 1930s, and that 
they won only through mass struggle, is underplayed in some radical 
interpretations. Such interpretations emphasize the advantages that 
unionization ultimately yielded management and seem therefore 
to imply that collective bargaining arrangements were yielded by 
an employers’ conspiracy. It is clearly true that management came 
in time to find unions useful, perhaps because the unions helped to 
discipline workers and maintain production, and more certainly 
because they helped to depoliticize worker discontent when it did 
erupt. Moreover in some industries—such as electrical manufactur¬ 
ing—unionization promised to stabilize wages and thus reduce the 
uncertainty of corporate competition (Schatz, 188-189). 110 But for 
the most part, these were advantages that industrialists themselves 
recognized slowly at best and only under extreme duress. They 
granted union recognition after bitter resistance; they granted it 


no Gerald P. Swope, head of General Electric, had as early as 1926 urged William 
Green of the AFL to form industrial unions. It would mean “the difference between an 
organization with which we could work on a business-like basis and one that would be a 
source of endless difficulties” (Radosh). Bernstein makes a similar assessment of the 
motives of oil mogul Harry Sinclair in signing an agreement with the oil workers in 
May 1934 (1971, 115). In some industries, particularly the garment trades, the unions 
also played a large role in regulating a fragmented industry made up of many small 
enterprises. 



174 


Poor People's Movements 

only in the face of mass strikes and government coercion. In effect, 
industrialists learned to use unions after the workers had fought for 
and won them. Industrial unionization was not a management 
strategy but a workers’ victory. 

And the victory was worth winning. Clearly, the straightforward 
concessions in higher pay and shorter hours and in government social 
welfare measures offered up at the height of the turmoil of the 1930s 
were worth winning. The more ambiguous concession was the right 
to organize itself. But, on balance, unionization must also be con¬ 
sidered a gain for industrial workers simply because they have been 
better off with it than they were without it; they are better off in 
the 1970s than they were in the 1920s. They are better off because 
unions still lead strikes; they still use some disruptive leverage, and 
because they do, most workers in the mass production industries 
have held their own in economic spheres. Wages have kept pace with 
rising productivity and profits. 111 Moreover, through unionization, 
workers gained a measure of job security. In particular, workers are 
now protected against reprisals in union-led strikes. 

On the other hand, unionization also ritualizes and encapsulates 
the strike power, thus limiting its disruptive impact on production, 
and limiting the political reverberations of economic disruptions as 
well. And the unions themselves have never exerted direct influence 
in electoral spheres comparable to the electoral influence of the 
workers’ movement of the 1930s. 

Industrial workers are by any measure the exemplary case of mass- 
based permanent organization. No other stratum of the lower class 
has comparable opportunities for organization on so large a scale. 
The main reason is that no other group possesses comparable dis¬ 
ruptive power. Labor won from elites the resources necessary to 
sustain a mass organization precisely because the enormous disruptive 
power of the strike had to be contained. Having been ceded the right 
to organize—including especially the legal sanction to coerce workers 
into union affiliation—labor could solve its organizational main¬ 
tenance problem; through coerced affiliation, a mass base has been 


in Thus Leonard Silk estimated that in 1969 the average annual income of blue-collar 
workers was substantially above the national median income (11). However, these data 
also make clear that other workers who were not located in mass production industries 
and were not unionized did not do nearly so well and as consumers, bore the inflation¬ 
ary burden of rising profits and rising wages in the mass production industries. 




175 


The Industrial Workers' Movement 


successfully sustained. But what other group in the lower class has 
the disruptive power to enable it to win equivalent resources for 
organizational maintenance? 

Industrial workers are also the exemplary case by which to test 
beliefs about the effectiveness of mass-based organization in electoral 
spheres. Through organization, labor ostensibly commanded vast re¬ 
sources for political influence: millions of organized voters and multi- 
million-dollar treasuries from dues. Still, these resources yielded 
them little in the electoral process. What, then, of the potential for 
electoral influence of the more typical lower-class organization, usu¬ 
ally with a few hundred or a few thousand members at best, and 
usually on the verge of bankruptcy? 

As for the labor experience itself, the political moral seems to us 
clear, although it is quite different from the moral that organizers are 
wont to draw. It can be stated simply: the unorganized disruptions 
of industrial workers in the 1930s produced some political gains, but 
the organized electoral activities of the unions could not sustain 
them. New gains await a new protest movement—a new outbreak of 
mass defiance capable of spurning the rules and authorities of the 
workplace and of politics, and capable of spurning the rules and 
authorities of the union system as well. 


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Nyden, Paul J. “Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coal Fields." 
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Olson, Mancur Jr. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and 
the Theory Of Groups. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 

Pelling, Henry. American Labor. Chicago: The University of Chicago 
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Perlman, Selig. A Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: Mac¬ 
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Preis, Art. Labor's Giant Step: 20 Years of the CIO. New York: Pioneer 
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Prickett, James Robert. “Communists and the Communist Issue in 
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Radosh, Ronald. “The Corporate Ideology of American Labor Leaders 
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Raybeck, Joseph G. A History of American Labor. New York: The 
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Rees, Goronwy. The Great Slump: Capitalism in Crisis, 1929-1933. 
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179 


The Industrial Workers’ Movement 


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Poor People's Movements 180 

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CHAPTER 

4 


The Civil Rights 
Movement 


World War II brought the Great Depression to a rapid end. Boom¬ 
ing war production was followed by rapid economic expansion in 
the postwar years which, together with Keynesian macroeconomic 
policies, produced a degree of stability and prosperity in the lives 
of many American workers. These improved economic conditions, 
coupled with the growth of industrial unionism, moderated unrest 
among the industrial working class. The next great struggles occurred 
among blacks, many of whom were outside, or at the very bottom 
of, the industrial working class. 

The black struggle was waged for two main goals. One was to 
secure formal political rights in the South, especially the right to 
the franchise; the other was to secure economic advances. In retro¬ 
spect it is clear that the main victory was the extension of political 
rights to southern blacks (together with a larger degree of black 
political representation in the northern cities). 

Beginning in the 1940s the federal courts reversed historic doc¬ 
trines and began to undercut the legality of southern caste arrange¬ 
ments, a trend that culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court decision 
which declared racially separate schools unconstitutional because 
they were inherently unequal. Then, between 1957 and 1965, four 
civil rights bills were enacted which, taken together, finally granted 
a broad range of democratic political rights to blacks, and provided 
the mechanisms to enforce those rights. As a consequence, public 
accommodations were desegregated, blacks began to serve on the 
southern juries which had for so long provided immunity to southern 


181 



182 


Poor People's Movements 

whites employing terror against blacks, and the franchise was finally 
granted. From a historical perspective, a long leap forward had been 
made. 

In the South the deepest meaning of the winning of democratic 
political rights is that the historical primacy of terror as a means of 
social control has been substantially diminished. 1 The reduction of 
terror in the everyday life of a people is always in itself an important 
gain. Myrdal has emphasized that “threats, whippings, and even 
serious forms of violence have been customary caste sanctions utilized 
to maintain a strict discipline over Negro labor” (229). But now, 
with the winning of formal political rights, the reliance on terror— 
on police violence, on the lynch mob, on arbitrary imprisonment— 
has greatly diminished as the method of controlling blacks. Why this 
historic transformation came about, and the role of the civil rights 
movement in producing it, is the subject of this chapter. 

By contrast, economic gains were limited. Many blacks entered 
the middle class, taking advantage of the liberal employment policies 
of both public and private institutions which the turbulence of the 
period produced. For most poor blacks, however, occupational con¬ 
ditions did not much ipiprove. For many of them the main gain was 
the winning of liberalized welfare practices to insure their survival 
despite widespread unemployment and underemployment. That gain, 
and the movement which won it, will be discussed in the next chapter. 

In the largest sense, political modernization in the South followed 
from economic modernization. Throughout the twentieth century 
industrialization had been advancing in the states of the Outer South 
and in some cities of the Deep South. 2 Meanwhile, in the rural areas 
of the Deep South, mechanization and new agricultural technologies 
swept over the traditional plantation system, especially in the post- 
World War II period. These economic transformations rendered the 
semifeudal political order that prevailed in much of the South 


1 Among some on the left, there is a tendency to ignore this gain. Robert L. Allen, a 
spokesman on the black left, typifies this attitude when he remarks: “In its heyday 
the integrationist civil rights movement cast an aura which encompassed nearly the 
whole of the black population, but the black bourgeoisie was the primary beneficiary of 
that movement” (26). This statement is clearly true for the economic gains made 
during the civil rights era: the existing and the new black middle classes were the chief 
beneficiaries. But this said, we believe that the diminution of terroristic methods of 
social control was a major gain for the mass of southern black poor. 

2 Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. 




183 The Civil Rights Movement 

obsolete, the vestige of a labor-intensive plantation system that was 
passing into history. 

The economic changes that made traditional patterns of political 
domination archaic also generated the force to bring new political 
arrangements into being. Changing economic circumstances, and the 
demographic and social ramifications that soon followed, created 
mounting unrest among masses of blacks, eventually culminating in 
a black struggle against the southern caste system. By the mid-1960s 
national political leaders finally responded to the rising tide of black 
protest and imposed modernizing political reforms on the South. 
That they could do so was a measure both of the underlying eco¬ 
nomic transformation which had occurred, and of the force of black 
insurgency. 

In the analysis which follows, we have focused on the relationship 
between economic change, mass unrest, and the national electoral 
system. If political reforms throughout the South were made possible 
by change in the southern economy, and if economic change, by pro¬ 
ducing mass unrest, also made those reforms imperative, it was the 
electoral system that registered and mediated the pressures and which 
yielded the reforms. Political rights were finally conceded to southern 
blacks by a national Democratic Party whose leaders had for decades 
consistently refused to interfere with caste arrangements in the South. 
Then, in a series of actions culminating in the mid-1960s, Demo¬ 
cratic presidents and a Congress dominated by Democratic majorities 
forced political reforms on the southern wing of their party. 

It is our view that the civil rights movement was a vital force in 
this process because of the impact of its disruptive tactics on the 
electoral system. By defying caste domination, and by thus provoking 
southern whites to employ terroristic methods that were losing legiti¬ 
macy, the civil rights movement succeeded in exacerbating electoral 
instabilities which had already been set in motion by economic 
modernization in the South. The national Democratic Party bore 
the brunt of these electoral conflicts and weakening party allegiances. 
The party’s electoral majority had been eroding in the postwar years 
as polarization between southern whites on the one hand, and blacks 
and northern white liberals on the other, worsened. Consequently 
when the black assault against the caste system took form in the 
1950s, polarizing northern and southern sentiments all the more, the 
leaders of the national Democratic Party maneuvered to reduce 
their electoral losses by imposing political reforms on the South. By 
this time there was no other way that the profound conflicts dividing 



184 


Poor People’s Movements 

the northern and southern wings o£ the party could be lessened. Nor, 
except by enfranchising blacks and incorporating them in the south¬ 
ern wing of the party, could Democratic strength in the South be 
regained. 3 We turn, then, to an amplification of these points. 


Blacks in the Southern Political Economy 

No group in American society has been as subjected to the extremes 
of economic exploitation as blacks. Each change in their relationship 
to the economic system has mainly represented a shift from one 
form of extreme economic subjugation to another: from slaves to 
cash tenants and sharecroppers; from cash tenants and sharecroppers 
to the lowest stratum in an emerging southern rural free labor sys¬ 
tem; and, finally, to the status of an urban proletariat characterized 
by low wages and high unemployment. In effect, the black poor pro¬ 
gressed from slave labor to cheap labor to (for many) no labor at all. 

In one period of American history after another, conflict has 
broken out among white dominants for control over the changing 
forms of economic exploitation of blacks; from the debate among 
the framers of the Constitution as to whether blacks were men or 
property; to the “free soil” conflict which brought on the Civil War; 
to the inconclusive Hayes-Tilden election and the Compromise of 
1877, which restored southern white hegemony and the Democratic 
Party in the South; to the “massive resistance” movement led by 
southern elites against the national government in the post-World 
War II era. 

In each period ascendant elites employed the powers of the national 


3 As this book went to press, we came across a monograph by C. L. R. James and his 
colleagues, first published in 1958 and then reissued in 1974, containing a passage which 
anticipated the electoral aspects of the analysis to be developed in this chapter. Though 
brief, the remarks were prescient, and we wish to acknowledge them: “The Negroes in 
the North and West, by their ceaseless agitation and their votes, are now a wedge 
jammed in between the Northern Democrats and the Southern. At any moment this 
wedge can split the party into two and thereby compel the total reorganization of 
American politics. They have cracked the alliance between the right wing of the 
Republicans and the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. By patient strategy and 
immense labor, they have taken the lead in the movement which resulted in the declara¬ 
tion of the Supreme Court that racial segregation is illegal. Now the people of Mont¬ 
gomery, by organizing a bus boycott which for a year was maintained at a level of over 
99 percent, have struck a resounding blow at racial discrimination all over the United 
States and written a new chapter of world-wide significance in the history of struggle 
against irrational prejudices” (150). 




185 


The Civil Rights Movement 

and local governments to enforce the subjugation of blacks. The 
entire apparatus of government—its legislatures, its judiciaries, its 
executive branches—has been mobilized to perpetuate caste arrange¬ 
ments in the South and segregation and discrimination in the North. 
Legislatures enacted laws to deprive blacks of political rights and 
refused to prevent private institutions from depriving blacks of eco¬ 
nomic and social rights; the courts wove a net of opinions which 
legitimized the actions of other branches of government and of 
private institutions; and the executive levels of government em¬ 
ployed their powers, especially police powers, to enforce the interests 
of private elites in exploiting the black labor force. 

The particular arrangements by which government buttressed the 
economic subjugation of blacks during the last hundred years had 
their origins in the post-Reconstruction period. The gains of the 
Civil War and of Reconstruction had, in principle, been consider¬ 
able. Blacks were freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclama¬ 
tion, and the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted in 1868 to 
provide due process and equal protection of the law. Two years 
later the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed all citizens the right to 
vote regardless of race or other characteristics. In 1875 the Civil 
Rights Bill was enacted to provide “equal enjoyment” of public 
accommodations and other facilities. But, by the turn of the century, 
most gains had been lost, and all would be by the end of the first 
decade of the twentieth century. 

“Racism grew up as an American ideology,” Arnold Rose has said, 
“partly in response to the need to maintain a reliable and permanent 
work force in the difficult job of growing cotton . . .” (xviii). That 
economic imperative was not lessened with the emancipation of the 
slaves. The southern economy was in a shambles; the restoration of 
the plantation system depended on once again securing a reliable and 
permanent work force, and one that could be made to work on 
terms not much different than those which had prevailed during 
slavery. Although legal slavery was no longer possible, a roughly 
equivalent status of economic serfdom was. During the last third of 
the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, south¬ 
ern elites, with the acquiescence of their northern counterparts, 
forged the system of political domination required to return blacks 
to servitude. Moreover, the resolution of the black’s economic role 
vitally affected the place of the poor white in the southern economy. 

For all practical purposes the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877 
freed the South to restore caste relations between blacks and whites. 



186 


Poor People’s Movements 

This transformation was achieved at the state and local level through 
mob and police violence, through legislative measures, and through 
court rulings—all tacitly or explicitly condoned in the North and 
by the federal government. 

The hallmark of white violence against blacks has been the lynch 
mob. Mob violence was among the most fundamental means by 
which the black was restored to servitude in the post-Reconstruction 
era, for “the evidence of race conflict and violence, brutality and 
exploitation in this period is overwhelming. It was, after all, in the 
eighties and early nineties that lynching attained the most staggering 
proportions ever reached in the history of that crime” (Woodward, 
1974, 43). (During the next seventy years the NAACP would record 
nearly 5,000 known cases of lynching.) The mobs, of course, were 
composed mainly of poor whites, leading Cox to conclude that “poor 
whites themselves may be thought of as the primary instrument of 
the ruling class in subjugating the Negroes” (536). 4 It was also the 
case that the police agents of the South achieved national renown for 
their tactics of terror against blacks. Sometimes they led lynch mobs. 
More commonly they simply made it known that they would not 
interfere with mob actions led by others. (And the Congress refused 
to make lynching a federal crime until after World War II.) 

As the nineteenth century came to a close, legislation was widely 
enacted to isolate and stigmatize blacks, thus legitimizing their eco¬ 
nomic exploitation. 5 Segregated arrangements soon pervaded every 


* Myrdal, who tends to underplay the role of class relations in understanding the 
American “dilemma,” nevertheless reaches a similar conclusion regarding the role played 
by poor whites in maintaining black subjugation: “Plantation owners and employers, 
who use Negro labor as cheaper and more docile, have at times been observed to 
tolerate, or cooperate in, the periodic aggression of poor whites against Negroes. It is a 
plausible thesis that they do so in the interest of upholding the caste system which is 
so effective in keeping the Negro docile” (598). 

5 In the political chaos created by the war and Reconstruction, the possession of the 
franchise by blacks at first posed an obstacle to the restoration of white domination. 
But as the political parties—Republican, Populists, and Democrats—struggled to build 
political support, each came to view the political rights of blacks as a serious impedi¬ 
ment to their success. Republicans, burdened by their identification with both northern 
and black interests, simply adopted a “lily-white” strategy. The radical agrarians in the 
various state populist parties at first stressed the similarity of interests between poor 
whites and poor blacks and tried to build coalitions with blacks; but that alliance could 
not survive southern racism and the Populists subsequently repudiated blacks in an 
effort to hold the support of poor whites. In any case, the planter-backed Democrats 
soon overwhelmed the Populists by casting blacks in the role of the common enemy and 
by this strategy generated broad popular support for the political hegemony of the 
white planter, banker, and merchant class over both poor blacks and whites in the 
South. 




187 


The Civil Rights Movement 

aspect of southern life, from schools to cemeteries. These legislative 
enactments were approved by the Supreme Court, which found in 
1883 that the Civil Rights Bill of 1875 was unconstitutional; and in 
1896, in an opinion that was to affirm the validity of segregation for 
more than half a century, the Court established the legal fiction that 
racial segregation was not in violation of the Fourteenth Amend¬ 
ment provided the facilities afforded blacks were equal. Finally, the 
vote was gradually denied to blacks by a variety of measures, includ¬ 
ing literacy and property tests, poll taxes, and “grandfather clauses” 
(which allowed persons to vote only if their ancestors had voted), and 
these actions were spurred by the Supreme Court which found in 
1898 that a plan advanced by Mississippi to disenfranchise blacks 
was not unconstitutional. 

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the move¬ 
ment to restore caste arrangements had succeeded. It was a movement 
which, by then, found support in virtually all walks of southern life; 
from the disillusioned agrarian radicals to the most conservative 
leaders of the planter class. Most important of all, it found favor 
among the mass of poor whites who were led by their various leaders 
to endorse measures to disenfranchise blacks—such as poll taxes and 
literacy tests—which disenfranchised many of them as well. That 
this could be so is owed to the great success with which the southern 
ruling class played upon economic competition among blacks and 
whites, for “the Southern ‘aristocracy’ . . . could not endure without 
the hatred which it perpetuates among the white and black masses, 
and it [has been] by no means unmindful of that fact” (Cox, 577). 
Poor whites paid dearly for that hatred, for many of them not only 
lost certain political rights, but they permitted themselves to be 
relegated to a condition of economic servitude not much different 
than that to which they condemned blacks. Thus Perlo points out: 

While the planters lost much from the Civil War, they had certain 
compensations. ... The new system of exploitation, involving “free” 
labor, could and was extended to the poor whites as well. As agri¬ 
culture in the South became more concentrated, hundreds of thou¬ 
sands of small white farmers lost their land. Many became city 
workers. But many others became wage laborers or sharecroppers 
on the plantations. They became subject to the same type of 
extreme exploitation as the Negro farm population (71). 

If the Compromise of 1877 marked the beginning of northern 
tolerance for southern practices, that tolerance was not shaken by the 



188 


Poor People’s Movements 

renewed subjugation of blacks as the nineteenth century drew to a 
close. In part this was because northern capitalism had entered a 
new imperialist phase, and racism as an ideology became more im¬ 
portant in the North as well: 

... in the year 1898, the United States plunged into imperialistic 
adventures overseas under the leadership of the Republican Party. 
These adventures in the Pacific and the Caribbean suddenly brought 
under the jurisdiction of the United States some eight million 
people of the colored races. ... As America shouldered the White 
Man’s Burden, she took up at the same time many southern atti¬ 
tudes on the subject of race. ... At the dawn of the new century 
the wave of Southern racism came in as a swell upon a mounting 
tide of national sentiment and was very much a part of that senti¬ 
ment (Woodward, 1974, 72-74). 

Landless, illiterate, and without recourse in the law or the political 
process, blacks were effectively returned to servitude as the twentieth 
century dawned. All of this was made possible by national acquies¬ 
cence in the full range of mechanisms which made up the southern 
caste system. The federal government would not intervene to pre¬ 
vent the harsh exploitation of black labor, nor to alter the social 
and political structures by which that exploitation was achieved. The 
result was the consolidation in the South of a ruling class which 
could easily control the whole of southern life and which faced 
little opposition until the post-World War II years. “The one party 
South . . . and the low political participation of even the white 
people favor a de facto oligarchic regime,” Myrdal points out. “The 
oligarchy consists of the big landowners, the industrialists, the 
bankers, and the merchants. Northern corporate business with big 
investments in the region has been sharing in the political control by 
this oligarchy” (453). 

Given the totalitarian system which prevailed in the South until 
World War II, no defiant movement could either emerge or succeed 
in winning concessions. Economic interests could fire and evict and 
withhold credit at will; white mobs could lynch and burn at will; 
police agents could beat, maim, and kill at will; political leaders 
could call up the militia at will; the courts could imprison at will. 
All of the coercive measures available to public and private elites 
were employed in their most untrammeled and undisguised form to 
compel acquiescence by blacks to their station. As Lomax put it, the 
“Negro world was an enclave of terror” (40). Nor were the occasions 



189 The Civil R igh ts Movemen t 

frequent when force needed to be applied. Defiance was largely pre¬ 
cluded by the socializing structures of southern society—its educa¬ 
tional system, its religious institutions, its media, and a culture in 
which symbols of white supremacy were the hallmark. All were or¬ 
ganized to inculcate the belief among blacks that their lot in life 
was the only rightful one or, at least, the only possible one. The 
structure of coercion and of socialization was so formidable that 
defiance simply could not be contemplated. 

Even had black insurgency developed on any scale, it would have 
resulted in bloody repression as long as the national government ac¬ 
commodated to these sectional arrangements. The alliance of the na¬ 
tional government and southern state and local governments was an 
overwhelming force. It would require some fundamental change, 
some large transformation, to disrupt this collusion. That transform¬ 
ing force was economic modernization in the South, a force that 
gradually altered national politics and, by doing so, helped give rise 
to an insurgent black movement. 


Economic Modernization in the South 

Even as caste arrangements were being consolidated in the South at 
the beginning of the twentieth century, large-scale economic forces 
were at work that would, in time, disrupt those arrangements. The 
most important effect of these economic forces, for our analysis, was 
the dramatic shift in the character of black participation in the labor 
force, together with mass migration out of the South. As to the first: 
“During slavery, practically all Negroes were engaged in southern 
agriculture or were household servants. This was still true of 87 
percent in 1900 and 80 percent in 1910. But in 1960 less than 10 
percent were in agriculture and 15 percent in domestic services” 
(Ross, 31). Regarding migration, more than 90 percent of blacks 
lived in the South at the beginning of the twentieth century; by 
1960 about half lived in the North. In the course of slightly more 
than a half century the occupational position of blacks was trans¬ 
formed, and great numbers were redistributed from the agricultural 
South to the industrial North. 

In the broadest terms, these shifts were caused by industrial expan¬ 
sion in the North during the first part of the twentieth century, by 
the decline in agricultural markets after World War I, together with 



190 


Poor People's Movements 

federal agricultural policies originating in the 1930s, which took great 
masses of land out of production, and by the rapid pace of agricultural 
and industrial modernization in the South during and after World 
War II. Northern industrial expansion began to draw many blacks 
out of agriculture and out of the South in the early part of the 
century. “After the turn of the century,” Ross points out, “American 
industrialism came into full flower. From an annual average of $13 
billion in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the gross national 
product increased ... to $40 billion in the 1909-1918 period. Total 
employment rose from an average of 27 million in 1889-1898 to 39 
million in 1908-1918” (11). With the outbreak of war in Europe, the 
waves of immigration which had provided the labor supply for in¬ 
dustrial expansion were sharply diminished, causing northern indus¬ 
try to look to the South for a source of labor. With these changes the 
first massive migration of blacks out of the South began; between 
1910 and 1920 about half a million blacks moved to northern and 
western states. 6 

The post-World War I years brought a sharp reduction in the 
need for agricultural products, both because of curtailed wartime 
exports and curtailed immigration; the result was the beginning of 
a long period of intense hardship for agricultural workers. This trend 
reached catastrophic proportions in the Great Depression. The col¬ 
lapse of agricultural markets, together with New Deal policies which 
attempted to deal with agricultural surpluses by reducing production, 
forced millions off the land throughout the United States. In the 
South, where the vast majority of blacks were still located, “Cotton 
land in cultivation declined from 43 million acres in 1929 to 23 
million acres in 1939. Negroes in every status—landowners, cash 
tenants, share tenants, sharecroppers, and laborers—were displaced 
in large numbers ...” (Ross, 14). Under the circumstances, migration 
was the only choice for many. By 1940 almost one-quarter (23 per¬ 
cent) of blacks had come to live outside the South. 

World War II reversed the decline in agriculture, but it also pro¬ 
vided the impetus for a large-scale modernizing trend: 7 


e Population Reference Bureau, 72. 

7 There were many reasons for the slow progress of mechanization in southern agricul¬ 
ture prior to World War II. Among the most important has been the abundance of 
cheap labor, which enabled the South to compete despite mechanization in other agri¬ 
cultural regions. But “under the stimulus of high incomes and a shortage of man¬ 
power” during World War II, mechanization began to sweep the South (Hoover and 
Ratchford, 110). 


191 The Civil Rights Movement 

The boom of World War II and subsequent war preparations gave 
southern landlordism a new lease on life by raising the price of 
cotton and increasing the profit from the exploitation of share¬ 
croppers and wage labor. At the same time this boom accelerated 
the technical development of southern agriculture. As large-scale 
purely capitalist farming grew at an unprecedented pace for the 
South . . . the anachronism of semi-slave, hand and mule labor on 
the sharecropper units became more acute (Perlo, 113). 

The modernization of southern agriculture also stimulated increasing 
concentration of land ownership. Although the amount of southern 
acreage in farm production declined only slightly between 1940 and 
1960, the number of farms dropped by nearly half, and the average 
farm size increased from 123 acres to 217 acres. 8 Taken together, 
mechanization, new agricultural technologies, federal policies which 
removed land from production, and the enlargement of land hold¬ 
ings dramatically altered the labor requirements of southern 
agriculture. 

The traditional tenant labor force of the South thus found itself 
increasingly obsolete, forced to search elsewhere for the means to 
subsist. White surplus farm labor found employment in the develop¬ 
ing southern textiles mills and related industries. But blacks con¬ 
tinued to be excluded from such employment. This pattern of 
segregated employment served the southern (and the northern) em¬ 
ploying classes well. The availability of a huge black labor surplus 
could be used as a threat to impede demands by whites for higher 
wages and for unionization. By excluding blacks the manufacturing 
class made “the underpaid white worker satisfied with his ‘superior* 
status’’ and “threatens implicitly to bring in the Negro in case of 
‘difficulties’ with the white workers” (Perlo, 99). Low wages and 
docile workers, in turn, helped to spur industrial expansion all the 
more, for the cheap labor pools available in the South led northern 
capital to make increasingly heavy investments in that region. 

The relative exclusion of blacks from southern industry had a 
further consequence of great importance for the analysis being de¬ 
veloped in this chapter—it gave many blacks little choice but to 
migrate northward. To be sure, a good many blacks migrated to 
southern cities, with the result that by 1960 only about 40 percent 
of the blacks who remained in the South still lived in rural areas. 


s Bureau of the Census, 1976, 46CM61. 



192 


Poor People’s Movements 

But their experience in the southern cities was one of intense eco¬ 
nomic hardship: they occupied the very bottom rung of the urban 
proletariat, finding employment mainly available in those forms of 
work that were considered “unsuitable” for whites (e.g., domestic 
service, and other unskilled service jobs). Consequently their eco¬ 
nomic circumstances both in agriculture and in the southern cities 
created an inexorable pressure upon blacks to migrate northward, 
producing the greatest exodus of southern black agricultural workers 
in the nation’s history: “During the decade of 1940-50 over 1.5 
million Negroes left the South and 1.5 million left during the next 
decade. . . . On the other hand, the net outmigration of whites from 
the South was only 0.1 percent in the 1940s and 1.7 percent during 
the 1950s” (Henderson, 83). 9 With this trend growing, the propor¬ 
tion of blacks living outside of the South rose from 23 percent to 
almost 50 percent between 1940 and the mid-sixties. For all practical 
purposes, then, the South succeeded in redistributing a substantial 
part of its surplus labor to other regions of the country. 

Taking all of these changes together, the results are striking: “In 
1910, 75 percent of the nation’s blacks lived in rural areas and nine- 
tenths lived in the South. [By the mid-sixties] three quarters were in 
cities and half resided outside of the southern states” (Foner, 325). 
In the course of a few decades a depressed southern rural peasantry 
had been transformed into a depressed urban proletariat. 

With a massive agricultural and industrial transformation under¬ 
way, a system of political domination based on terror and disen¬ 
franchisement was no longer essential to the southern ruling class 
in order to insure their labor needs on terms favorable to them. In 
other words economic modernization had made the South susceptible 
to political modernization. In the large-scale mechanized agriculture 
that was developing in the rural South, market incentives were slowly 
substituted for the older system of serf labor. A wage labor supply— 
one that was somewhat more skilled (especially in the use of machin¬ 
ery)—was coming to be required. This transition to wage labor was 


9 Just how great an upheaval this was for blacks is suggested by the Department of 
Agriculture which estimated “that 42 percent of the Negro farm people of 1940 who 
were still living in 1950 had left the farm during the 1940's” (Population Reference 
Bureau, 73). In the 1950s, the largest migration occurred in the post-Korean period: 
“Between 1954-59, the number of Negro-operated farms declined by 35 percent—a 
measure of how greatly cuts in acreage allotments on cotton and tobacco and how the 
use of machinery had curtailed the need for the tenant farmer in only five years” 
(Population Reference Bureau, 73). 




193 The Civil Rights Movement 

greatly facilitated by the huge labor surpluses which were continually 
thrown up by the process of agricultural modernization itself. The 
constant threat of unemployment was a powerful inducement for 
rural workers to accept wage work on terms dictated by the planter 
class. 

In the industrializing areas of the South a new capitalist class was 
emerging, especially during and following World War II. In large 
part it was tied to northern corporate power, for a considerable seg¬ 
ment of southern industrial enterprise was initiated and controlled 
by northern capital. This new urban-based industrial class relied 
mainly on market mechanisms to insure its labor needs. To be sure, 
the inferior status of blacks continued to be a useful mechanism to 
insure maximum profits. But the deliberate exacerbation of racial 
competition for jobs was a strategy long used by employers to control 
labor both in the North and in the South, and was far from being 
equivalent to a system of caste. As a social system to allocate and 
control labor, in short, southern caste arrangements were becoming 
obsolete. 

It was also the case that the southern white, whatever his class, 
had less reason in the post-World War II years to fear the extension 
of political rights to blacks, including the granting of the franchise. 
An extensive depopulation of the black belt South was well under 
way as a result of the large northward movement of blacks. Whatever 
electoral threat blacks might once have represented, migration greatly 
lessened it. 

As economic modernization overtook the South, other changes 
were taking place in the North which also weakened opposition to the 
extension of formal rights to blacks. As we noted in an earlier section 
the imperialistic adventures launched by northern capitalism at the 
beginning of the twentieth century were in part justified by a racist 
ideology which borrowed much from the South. But with the rise 
of communism the United States was thrown into intense competi¬ 
tion for world domination, a circumstance that demanded an ideol¬ 
ogy of “democracy” and “freedom.” By the post-World War II period 
and the outbreak of the “cold war,” this ideology reached full flower 
in international relations. Increasingly the circumstances prevailing 
in the South constituted a national embarrassment and support for 
these arrangements by dominant economic elites weakened. Imperial¬ 
istic requirements which had in one era helped return blacks to 
servitude thus helped in another era to release them from servitude. 

The stakes of northern capitalism in domestic racism also weakened 



194 


Poor People's Movements 

after World War II. Early in the century, as black numbers in the 
northern industrial centers grew, employers had relentlessly pitted 
blacks against whites, exacerbating racial tensions in order to weaken 
working-class solidarity. One measure of the success of this strategy 
was the outbreak of white mob violence against blacks in the post- 
World War I period, for “some twenty-five race riots were touched 
off in American cities during the last six months of 1919,” as an up¬ 
surge of unemployment followed the slowing of war production and 
the demobilizing of the armed forces. “Mobs took over cities for 
days at a time, flogging, burning, shooting, and torturing at will. . . . 
During the first year following the war more than seventy Negroes 
were lynched, several of them veterans still in uniform” (Woodward, 
1974, 114). Blacks were slowly forced out of many of the industries 
where they had obtained wartime employment, and they were ex¬ 
cluded from unions as well. To survive, they were pressed all the 
more to cooperate with nonunion employers against white workers. 
The problem was so extreme that the National Urban League found 
it necessary in 1919 to enact policies broad enough “to permit the 
autonomous local Leagues to proceed as they deemed best—to en¬ 
dorse and work with unions, to refer Negroes as strikebreakers, or 
to remain neutral” in the struggle between the employing and work¬ 
ing classes (Meier, 1967, 175). 

By the World War II period, however, northern capitalism had 
largely acceded to the unionization of the industrial working class, 
and to that extent the exploitation of racial cleavages had begun to 
lose its former utility. This change, together with the growing re¬ 
quirement for a liberal racial ideology with which to meet the threat 
of Communism in international affairs, eroded support for the 
southern social system among economic dominants in the North. 
As the nation approached mid-century, then, the leaders of northern 
capitalism and their counterparts in the South no longer had great 
cause to resist modernizing political trends in the southern region. 
Arnold Rose surely overstated the point when he remarked that 
caste arrangements had become “an expression merely of a traditional 
psychology,” but the remark nevertheless contained much truth 
(xxvi). 



195 


The Civil Rights Movement 


Economic Modernization and Electoral Instability 

Economic change, by weakening the stakes of agricultural and in¬ 
dustrial leaders in the maintenance of caste arrangements, also freed 
national political leaders to act against those arrangements. By the 
fourth and fifth decades of the twentieth century, the perpetuation 
of caste arrangements was being reduced to a question of public 
opinion. In the absence of significant opposition from economic 
dominants, the question was whether shifts in the alignments of 
broad electoral groupings would create the necessary pressures to 
compel national leaders to act. The Democratic Party was the main 
arena in which this drama of gradually intensifying electoral conflict 
and realignment was played out. 

Since the post-Reconstruction period, the one-party South has con¬ 
stituted the regional foundation of the national Democratic Party. 
Periodic efforts by the Republican Party to revive its political for¬ 
tunes by mounting a “southern strategy”—either to forge a coalition 
between southern whites and blacks, or simply to garner conservative 
white voters—have foundered on the shoals of a virulent racism 
inculcated by the Democratic political leaders of the South and by 
the economic elites whom they served. The poor whites of the South, 
whatever their populist inclinations, continued in the twentieth 
century to be deeply moved by racial fears and by the slight ad¬ 
vantages in economic position and social status which caste arrange¬ 
ments afforded them. Consequently poor whites continued to align 
themselves with the ruling class of the South, submerging their own 
class interests in a political alliance against blacks. 

The realignment of the Democratic Party in 1932 did not change 
the politics of the South, for a national coalition was formed that 
joined together the industrial working class in the North and the 
one-party agrarian South. But two sources of strain were in the 
making even as that alliance was formed. 

For one, northern urban blacks joined that coalition in 1936. With 
that shift, the “American dilemma” became a Democratic dilemma, 
as it had been a Republican dilemma for more than half a century. 
Just as the race question had plagued the party of Lincoln (it espe¬ 
cially plagued Republican presidential contenders who had to deal 
with a delegation of northern and southern blacks at nominating 
conventions), now it was to plague the party of the New Deal and 
ultimately to divide it along regional lines. 



196 


Poor People's Movements 

But that division would be several decades in the making. In the 
meanwhile blacks got little, as a racial group, for their participation 
in Democratic politics: a few leavings of municipal patronage from 
the local parties, a few symbolic gestures from Democratic presidents. 
In 1936 the Democratic Party removed the rule that required a two- 
thirds majority for nominations and thereby also removed the 
South’s veto power over presidential candidates. In the early 1940s 
a Roosevelt-oriented Supreme Court declared the white primary un¬ 
constitutional, and Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Prac¬ 
tices Commission (in response to the threat that blacks, led by A. 
Phillip Randolph, would mount a march on Washington). Even 
such minor concessions, however, marked the beginning of a new 
posture by national Democratic leaders toward the black cause, and 
engendered intense antagonism among southern leaders, thus creat¬ 
ing a deep strain between the northern and southern wings of the 
party. 

The social and economic policies of the New Deal generated a 
second source of regional strain. New Deal programs to spur recovery 
and to solidify popular support provoked open conflict with the 
traditional elites of the South, whose power was based on the planta¬ 
tion economy. This “banker-merchant-farmer-lawyer-doctor-govern¬ 
ing class” considered the New Deal a threat to its pervasive control 
over the structure of southern rural and smalltown life: 

For these people, the New Deal jeopardized a power that rested 
on the control of property, labor, credit and local government. Relief 
projects reduced dependency [on employers]; labor standards raised 
wages; farm programs upset landlord-tenant relationships; govern¬ 
ment credit bypassed bankers; new federal programs skirted county 
commissioners and sometimes even state agencies (Tindall, 31). 

Southern economic interests did not, of course, eschew the New Deal 
programs that were of direct benefit to them; they opposed only 
those programs whose impact would weaken their power. Thus, for 
example, New Deal agricultural policies paid plantation owners 
generously to take land out of production, and the owners were glad 
for the subsidies. But, at the same moment, they opposed the giving 
of federal emergency relief to the superfluous work force resulting 
from the reduction of agricultural activity: 

The share tenant’s situation is the impossible one of being forced 
by the inadequacies of the present system, on the one hand, to 
seek relief as the only means of keeping alive; and, on the other 



197 


The Civil Rights Movement 

hand, of having this relief opposed by the landlord because it may 
spoil him as a tenant, if and when he can be used again. There 
are other fears back of the landlord’s attitude; the fear that the 
tenant will be removed from the influence of the landowner and 
learn that he is not entirely dependent on him; and the fear that 
the relief will raise the standard of living to the extent that bargain- ■ 
ing on the old basis will be difficult. It can readily be seen that 
from the point of view of the landlord government relief is demor¬ 
alizing (Johnson, Embree, and Alexander, 52). 

In response to these two basic sources of strain, independent electors 
appeared on the ballots of several southern states in 1936. Although 
it was another decade before the movement toward independent or 
unpledged electors gathered momentum, the election of 1936 was a 
harbinger of the deep strains in Democratic presidential politics that 
would soon split the party. 

But whatever their antagonism toward New Deal programs, south¬ 
ern leaders were in no position to bolt the party, for they had little 
hope of carrying the southern rank and file with them. Roosevelt’s 
policies for economic recovery and social reform resonated with a 
long tradition of economic populism among the southern white 
masses, and thus solidified his electoral strength throughout the 
South. However, the tensions originating in the New Deal period led 
southern congressional delegates to coalesce with the Republicans; 
in exchange for opposition by southern Democrats to many progres¬ 
sive economic and social welfare measures put forward by the Demo¬ 
cratic leadership (measures which, in any case, conservative south¬ 
erners were quite prepared to oppose for their own reasons), the 
Republicans in turn withheld support from civil rights proposals 
which were so repugnant to the South. 

To cope with this strain in the party, Roosevelt chose to avoid 
head-on clashes with the South over the race issue (by refusing sup¬ 
port to anti-lynching legislation, for example). Instead he argued that 
blacks could best progress by being loyal to the New Deal, thus bene- 
fitting from the array of social and economic legislation sponsored 
by the New Deal. There can be no doubt that blacks did benefit from 
many of these programs (although they were badly hurt by some, 
especially federal agricultural policies). But as an excluded and ex¬ 
ploited racial group, they got virtually nothing. In effect, the civil 
rights issue was submerged in order to maintain greater party unity. 

By 1940 blacks began leaving the South in great numbers. Year 
by year the impact of this demographic revolution on the northern 



198 


Poor People's Movements 

electoral system was immense, for blacks were concentrating in the 
northern cities of the most populous, industrialized states. In other 
words they were concentrated in the electoral strongholds of the 
Democratic Party. And as their voting numbers swelled, leaders in 
the northern wing of the party began to acknowledge that concessions 
to blacks would have to be made. 

The race issue emerged in the election of 1948. It probably would 
not have emerged so early as a presidential campaign issue were it 
not for the formation of the Progressive Party led by Henry Wallace: 
Wallace directed his appeals to northern liberals and to blacks. Clark 
Clifford, Truman’s chief campaign strategist, was worried about the 
president’s strength among blacks, and not just because of Wallace. 
The Republicans were also making symbolic appeals to the black 
voter. Thus Clifford warned Truman that 

the Republicans were doing everything they could to win back 
this electorate. He predicted that the Republicans would “offer an 
FEPC, an anti-poll tax bill, and an anti-lynching bill” in the next 
Congressional session. To counter, the president had to push for 
whatever action he felt necessary “to protect the rights of minority 
groups.” Although the South might not like this action, it was the 
“lesser of two evils” (Yarnell, 44). 10 

At the same time, Clifford advised Truman that “as always, the 
South can be considered safely Democratic. And in formulating 
national policy, it can be safely ignored” (Cochran, 1973, 230). 

Accordingly Truman gave the appearance of championing civil 
rights. “Although he went much further than any previous President 
... he failed to match rhetoric with concrete efforts . . .” (Hartmann, 
150-151). Thus Truman called for a broad range of civil rights 
measures in an address to Congress on January 7, and on February 2, 
he delivered a special civil rights message to Congress which out¬ 
lined a ten-point program, including outlawing the poll tax, estab¬ 
lishing a permanent FEPC, and making lynching a federal crime. 
But having promised to issue executive orders abolishing segrega- 


io There is considerable dispute among analysts of the election of 1948 over the ques¬ 
tion of whether Truman's rhetorical position on civil rights during the campaign was 
owed to the Wallace threat, or to the threat that the Republicans would capture votes 
among blacks. Among those who make a strong case that Wallace was the primary force 
are Bernstein, Berman, and Vaughan. By contrast, Yarnell reaches the conclusion that 
the Republicans were the much greater threat (see especially 35, 44, and 69). For the 
purposes of our analysis, this dispute is not crucial. What is crucial is that the civil 
rights question was gradually emerging as an electoral issue. 




199 The Civil Rights Movement 

tion in the armed forces and discrimination in federal employment 
—actions which were within his immediate power—he did neither 
(not, at least, until after the unanticipated and turbulent events of 
the nominating convention in the summer). 

The nominating convention scuttled Truman’s essentially rhetori¬ 
cal civil rights strategy. Liberal leaders intent on securing a strong 
civil rights plank despite Truman’s opposition were joined by influ¬ 
ential northern machine leaders who believed Truman would lose 
the election. They “were less concerned with Southern diehards 
bolting than with solidifying the Negro vote behind their local and 
state candidates. Henry Wallace was making a powerful appeal to 
this constituency in major cities. Any spectacular demonstration of 
the Democrats as resolute defenders of Negro interests that would 
head off the Wallace threat was to be welcomed’’ (Cochran, 1973, 
230). Consequently a strong civil rights plank was pushed through 
on the floor of the convention, leading Alabama and Mississippi to 
walk out. The Dixiecrat forces, drawing upon dissident elements 
throughout the South, convened two days later in Birmingham to 
form a States’ Rights Party with Senator J. Strom Thurmond of 
South Carolina as its presidential nominee. With these events 
Truman was pushed all the more to the left on the race question, 
and he immediately issued the executive orders he had promised 
months earlier. “Thus a border-state politician intent on pursuing 
an ambiguous racial policy had the torch of civil rights unexpectedly 
thrust into his hands” (Cochran, 1973, 231). In the ensuing election, 
Truman won (with the aid of the black vote) despite the loss of 
four Deep South states—Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and 
Mississippi—to the States’ Rights Party. 

The militancy of southern leaders in 1948 reflected the continuing, 
though rapidly diminishing, political and economic stakes in the 
exploitation of blacks, especially in the Deep South. Moreover the 
hoisting of the States’ Rights banner afforded southern leaders an 
opportunity to mobilize opposition to the offensive social and eco¬ 
nomic policies of the New Deal and the Fair Deal. Lubell refers to 
this as “a double insurgency: an economic revolt aimed at checking 
government spending and the power of labor unions, and a racial 
reaction designed to counter the influence of Negro voting in the 
North” (1966, 186). 11 


ii On this point see also Sindler, 1962, 141. 




200 


Poor People’s Movements 

Thus it cannot be said that the cause of securing civil rights legis¬ 
lation was immediately advanced by these events. Southern defec¬ 
tions in the election of 1948 foreshadowed the possible dissolution 
of that regional base, and so concessions to the South—namely, 
maintaining the racial status quo—became the order of the day, as 
Stevenson’s posture in campaigning for the Democratic nomination 
in 1952 revealed. In one speech prior to the convention Stevenson 
declared that “I reject as contemptible the reckless assertions that 
the South is a prison in which half the people are prisoners and the 
other half are wardens” (Cochran, 1969, 222). During the nominating 
convention he expressed great concern that the fight over civil 
rights “might drive the South out of the party—the party needed 
unity” (Martin, 1976, 589). With his acquiescence, the delegation 
from Illinois voted to seat the Dixiecrat delegations without a 
“loyalty pledge,” a position which antagonized many northern advo¬ 
cates of civil rights. By reason of his personal convictions and his 
concern that the South had to be kept within the framework of the 
Democratic Party, Stevenson emerged as a compromise candidate, 
defeating Kefauver and Harriman after several ballots. He then 
named Senator John Sparkman of Alabama as his running mate. 

Throughout the campaign Stevenson continued to appease the 
South, and gave relatively little attention to the black vote in the 
northern cities (Cochran, 1969, 221-222). “He repeatedly indicated 
concern about losing the South” (Martin, 1976, 597), and time and 
again he asserted that the responsibility for dealing with the race 
problem properly resided with the states: 

He fell back on an old proposal that the federal FEPC relinquish 
jurisdiction to states that had FEPC’s of their own. What about 
the filibuster? “I suppose the President might properly be con¬ 
cerned with the rules of the Senate. ... I should certainly want 
to study it. ... I am told that it has disadvantages as well as 
advantages. There are other considerations involved in unlimited 
and free debate that must not be overlooked in our anxiety to 
advance in one field alone” (Martin, 1976, 611). 12 


12 As a matter of principle, Stevenson spoke strongly in favor of civil rights: “In the 
South he talked of the necessity of civil rights for Negroes, if anything more emphati¬ 
cally than he had in Harlem” (Muller, 101). But the point is that he steadfastly 
resisted suggestions that he advocate federal actions designed to impose these principles 
upon the South. 




201 


The Civil Rights Movement 

As it happens, this policy of conciliation did not stem the tide of 
defections in the subsequent election because an entirely different 
force was also at work. To be sure, the Dixiecrat states, where race 
was the preeminent issue, returned to the Democratic ranks, al¬ 
though South Carolina and Louisiana did so by very slim majorities. 
But in the Outer South the Republicans made big gains; Virginia, 
Florida, Tennessee, and Texas delivered their electoral votes to 
Eisenhower. Republican strength in the Outer South was especially 
noticeable among the growing white middle classes in the cities, 
while Democratic strength tended to be concentrated among whites 
in the declining small towns and rural areas of the Deep South 
(Lubell, 1956, 179 ff.). 

The election of 1952 thus revealed the political effects of a second 
form of economic change that was sweeping the South: industrial 
modernization. This modernizing trend was casting up a new white 
middle class in the cities and suburbs (especially in the states of the 
Outer South) whose political sympathies inclined toward the Re¬ 
publican Party. These changes in the class structure became apparent 
in the election of 1952, which “marked a turning point in Re¬ 
publican fortunes, the beginnings of a southern Republicanism that 
would contest elections, first at the presidential level, then at the 
state and local levels, evolving gradually into a credible opposition 
party everywhere except the inner core of the Deep South—and 
even there sporadically” (Tindall, 49). 

In other words, the rupture between the northern and southern 
wings of the Democratic party which occurred in 1948 was no trans¬ 
ient phenomenon. Both agricultural and industrial modernization 
were contributing to a deep and widening fissure. Each of these 
economic forces was eroding the Democratic Party’s base in the 
South in a different way. Indeed some political analysts even reached 
the conclusion at the time that the Democratic Party might not 
survive. Lubell was one: 

The most heavily Democratic districts in the North .. . are becoming 
those which are poorest economically and which have the largest 
Negro populations—two characteristics which tend to pull the 
representatives of these districts back to the old appeals of the New 
Deal. If this trend continues, as seems likely, the Congressmen from 
these districts will find themselves in sharpening conflict with the 
Southern districts, both with the anti-Negro sentiments, so strong 
in the rural South, and the economic conservatism of the rising 
middle-class elements in the Southern cities. . . . The underlying 



202 


Poor People’s Movements 

tensions between these two wings of “sure” Democratic seats are 

sufficiently intense so that the cracking apart of the Democratic 

party must be rated a possibility (1956, 215-216). 

In this prediction, of course, Lubell was wrong. His mistake was 
partly in failing to take account of the large stakes the dominant 
leadership of the South, its congressional delegation, had in the 
Democratic party. From the start of party splintering in 1948 the 
southern congressional delegation kept its distance from third-party 
adventurism. “Continued agitation for an independent political 
movement came primarily from the Citizens’ Councils and aging 
Dixiecrat forces” at the state and local level (Bartley, 290). As a result 
of its longevity in Congress the southern delegation enjoyed tre¬ 
mendous power in national affairs; it had a large claim on federal 
patronage, and had a decisive impact on the allocation of billions of 
dollars in defense funds for the construction of military, space, and 
industrial complexes, many of which came to be located in the South. 
Nor were shifts in party identification free of risks to electoral in¬ 
cumbency itself. The mystique of the Democratic Party still held 
sway below the Mason-Dixon line despite the racial tensions of the 
times. Consequently southern congressional leaders confined them¬ 
selves to encouraging presidential Republicanism, unpledged elec¬ 
tors, and other stratagems to threaten the national Democratic Party, 
but they did not bolt. In effect they defined the limits of the southern 
white resistance movement and thereby weakened it. But within 
these limits they helped the North-South fissure grow. 

Because of this fissure, blacks did not benefit much at this stage 
from their growing voting numbers in the North. Black loyalty to 
the Democratic Party was not in doubt; in fact it had been intensify¬ 
ing. Referring to the trends in black voting with migration to the 
North, Lubell observed that “as their numbers have increased so 
has their Democratic party loyalty. . . . Truman got a heavier pro¬ 
portion of the Negro vote than did Roosevelt, while Stevenson [in 
the election of 1952] did even better among the Negroes than 
Truman” (1956, 214). The firm allegiance of black voters thus en¬ 
couraged Democratic strategists to decide that it was defections 
among southern voters which constituted the main problem of the 
party. For this reason the civil rights issue continued to be sacrificed 
to the goal of regional unity. It was the South, in short, that initially 
benefitted from electoral instability. But that was to change, for if 
the South was becoming antagonized and restive over the race issue, 
so too were blacks. 



203 


The Civil Rights Movement 


Economic Modernization and the Rise 
of Black Defiance 

As economic modernization thrust blacks out of one socioeconomic 
system and into another, their capacity to resist caste controls was 
substantially enlarged. Controls which were so readily enforced in 
a rural society characterized by dispersion and face-to-face inter¬ 
action could not be well enforced in the urban community where 
ghettoization produced concentration and separation. Consequently, 
“behind the walls of segregated isolation, Negroes were better able 
to build resistance to subordination” (Rose, xviii). 

The historical process of building “resistance to subordination” 
was initiated in the North where there was no tradition of caste 
controls and no socially sanctioned tradition of terror against blacks. 
Since industrialists had encouraged migration to cope with labor 
shortages and to combat labor insurgency, they entered into a certain 
kind of alliance with blacks that provided a measure of protection. 
Political leaders were also restrained from the more extreme forms 
of racist demagoguery by incipient black electoral influence. The 
northern urban environment was harsh, to be sure, but it did not 
preclude protest. 

Protest emerged simultaneously with mass migration. Freed from 
feudal controls, blacks began to protest the oppression they had al¬ 
ways known. Moreover, segregation in the northern ghettos provided 
a degree of security and concentrated numbers provided a sense of 
strength. Thus with the first large migratory wave in the World 
War I period, Marcus Garvey was able to draw a million northern 
blacks into his Universal Negro Improvement Association by appeals 
that converted “the Negro-American’s stigmatized identity into the 
source of his personal worthiness” (Michael Lewis, 158). 13 He suc¬ 
ceeded in attracting this huge constituency because a people just 
recently released from a station of enforced inferiority needed to 


13 Black protest was sometimes directed against white society and was sometimes a 
reaction away from it, for “American Negro history is basically a history of the conflict 
between integrationist and nationalist forces in politics, economics, and culture, no 
matter what leaders are involved and what slogans are used” (Cruse, 564). We pass 
over this important distinction, which is useful for other purposes; but for the purpose 
of understanding the evolution of black protest, each movement—whatever its specific 
direction—nurtured the capacity for collective action. 




204 


Poor People’s Movements 

have their sense of worth affirmed. At the same time and in many 
of the same ghettos “Negroes showed a new disposition to fight and 
defend themselves’’ against the white mobs that terrorized blacks 
in several dozen American cities as the war ended (Woodward, 1974, 
114). Cast in the role of scabs, blacks repeatedly fought white workers 
for the right to work. During the depression they confronted the 
police in eviction actions and joined in the struggles of the unem¬ 
ployed against the relief system. In the great uprisings that led to the 
Congress of Industrial Organizations, they united with white workers 
in strikes against those mass production industries where they had 
gotten an occupational foothold. They combined during World 
War II to challenge Roosevelt’s wartime government with a mass 
“March on Washington Movement’’ to protest discrimination in war 
industry and segregation in the armed forces. In the southern military 
camps and surrounding communities they engaged in armed combat 
against whites who attacked them. In other words, once they were 
free to do so, blacks acted “beyond the limits of institutionalized 
politics” to protest their condition (Michael Lewis, 151). 

Concentration and separation also generated a black economic 
base, despite the poverty of most of the black urban wage workers 
who contributed to that base. One significant result was the gradual 
emergence of a black occupational sector which was relatively in¬ 
vulnerable to white power, a sector consisting of clergymen, small 
entrepreneurs, professionals, and labor leaders. In an earlier period, 
and particularly in southern rural society, very few—if any—blacks 
were located in these occupations, and those few were usually de¬ 
pendent on whites. The emergence of an independent leadership 
sector was accompanied by institutional expansion and diversifica¬ 
tion, and by greater institutional independence of the white com¬ 
munity. This development, too, was made possible by the economic 
base which resulted from concentration and segregation. Churches 
acquired mass memberships, fraternal and other communal associa¬ 
tions proliferated, small businesses could be sustained, segregated 
union locals were formed, and a black press could be nourished. 
These institutions provided the vehicles to forge solidarity, to define 
common goals, and to mobilize collective action. 

In the evolving history of black protest these developing occupa¬ 
tional and institutional resources were of crucial importance. The 
March on Washington Movement instigated by A. Philip Randolph, 
president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, is an outstand¬ 
ing example. Head of a segregated international union, Randolph 



205 The Civil Rights Movement 

could act with considerable immunity from white sanctions and his 
union afforded financial resources and organizing talent. Acting as 
couriers and organizers in the northeastern and midwestern cities 
where they stopped over, his trainmen instigated rallies and marches 
to pressure Roosevelt into issuing an executive order establishing a 
Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to insure blacks 
access to wartime defense employment. The black press, too, was of 
critical importance, for it almost uniformly supported Randolph and 
continually featured the movement’s activities. With this mobiliza¬ 
tion under way, greater solidarity across class lines was forged* 

[Middle-class black leaders] were unable to withstand the militant 
mood of the frustrated group they sought to lead. However reluc¬ 
tantly, the organizing of masses of Negroes [by Randolph] to engage 
in a national direct-action demonstration came to be widely agreed 
upon as a necessary action. It was viewed as a last resort, a dramatic 
gesture to force the white majority to take notice of the dire distress 
of its Negro brothers (Garfinkel, 42). 

In these ways economic modernization, coupled with separation and 
concentration, both freed blacks from feudal constraints and enabled 
them to construct the occupational and institutional foundation from 
which to mount resistance to white oppression. 

Urbanization had another important effect: blacks at the bottom 
of the urban social order were not only loosened from racial con¬ 
trols, they were loosened from social controls more generally. 
Social disorganization usually accompanies rapid agricultural mod¬ 
ernization and the result of southern modernization was no different. 
The fundamental cause was unemployment and underemployment. 
In the rural South people may have lived close to the margin of 
subsistence, but they were nevertheless enmeshed in an economic 
system; they were also deeply enmeshed in a semifeudal system of 
social relations. But with modernization, unemployment spread, 
driving people into the cities where unemployment and under¬ 
employment became a more or less chronic condition for many. 14 


1 4 When blacks were located in agriculture, their unemployment rates were lower than 
white rates. With migration, this relationship was reversed. “By the late 1940s the black 
unemployment rate was about 60 percent higher than the white rate and since 1954 it 
has been double the white rate, which itself has risen ” (Killingsworth, 50). Moreover 
there is substantial reason to think that a good deal of black unemployment is “hidden’* 
—undetected because of biases in official reporting procedures. Some authorities believe 
that blacks generally suffered a rate of unemployment three times that of whites in the 




206 


Poor People’s Movements 

In turn, persistent unemployment shredded the social fabric. The 
impact could be sensed in the gradually rising proportion of families 
headed by females, for men without work were unable to form and 
sustain families. As for the men themselves, unemployment deprived 
them of the meaning of work and removed them from the 
discipline of work. In this way agricultural modernization created 
a depressed and deregulated class and thus a potentially volatile 
class from whose ranks civil disorder could erupt. One form that dis¬ 
order took was rioting: a major riot broke out in Harlem as early 
as 1935 and again during World War II. 

As the numbers of blacks in the cities grew, their protests began 
to produce concessions from political leaders. Each concession, how¬ 
ever rhetorical, conferred legitimacy on the goals of the struggle and 
gave reason for hope that the goals could be reached, with the 
result that protest was stimulated all the more. The concessions were 
yielded by northern political leaders, especially in the. Democratic 
Party and in the federal judiciary. The Great Depression probably 
marked the beginnings of this new posture by political leaders. Al¬ 
though Roosevelt did all that he could to avoid the civil rights issue 
directly for fear of antagonizing the South, he gave blacks “a sense 
of national recognition. He did so more in terms of their interests in 
economic and social injustice than of their title to equal rights. Yet 
he threw open the gates of hope” (Schlesinger, 935). But the number 
of blacks in the North was mounting and protest was intensifying. 
By World War II racial concessions had to be made. Despite his 
uneasiness over how an FEPC would affect defense industries in the 
South, and the possibility of alienating the southern congressional 
delegation, Roosevelt was confronted by the prospect of a march on 
Washington that would cause considerable national and international 
embarrassment to a country identified with the struggle for “freedom 
abroad.” With the scheduled march only days away, he conceded and 
signed an executive order establishing an FEPC on June 25, 1941. 

In the presidential campaign of 1948 the issue of granting blacks 
basic rights emerged directly and forcefully, thrusting the issue of 
race to the very center of national politics. With both Truman and 


years following the Korean War (Killingsworth, 62; Ross, 22 and 26). With white rates 
regularly reaching 6 percent during that recessionary period, it could well have been 
the case that true black unemployment rates were running as high as 20 percent. In the 
central city ghettos the rates were even higher. Additional data on black unemployment 
will be presented in chapter five. 




207 The Civil Rights Movement 

Wallace aligned against segregation and discrimination and with 
southern leaders aligned to defend the caste system, the rhetoric of 
race became more inflamed than during any period since the Civil 
War. 

Other segments of the national political leadership stratum also 
responded in this period. This was nowhere better exemplified than 
in the opinions of the U. S. Supreme Court. After 1940 the Court 
upheld the rights of blacks to eat in unsegregated dining cars on 
interstate carriers, to register and vote in southern white primaries, 
and to enroll in publicly supported institutions of higher educa¬ 
tion. This assault on racism through the courts had been many years 
in the making by the NAACP, and in a growing climate of black 
protest the courts granted concessions. By the early 1950s: 

The legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the 
Advancement of Colored People had developed a nearly completed 
brief against the principle of separate but equal, plus a staff of 
lawyers with the skill and acumen to plead their case. In the Sipuel, 
Sweatt and McLaurin cases during the first five years after the end 
of the war, they had persuaded the Supreme Court to narrow the 
definition of equality, so that there remained only the bare principle 
that segregation was constitutional only if there were real equality. 
Now the NAACP was ready to attack that principle (Killian, 39). 

The culmination of this judicial repudiation of southern racism 
came in 1954 with the striking down of the “separate but equal” 
doctrine in public education. It was a sweeping victory, one that was 
destined to unleash the forces of reaction throughout the South, 
giving rise to campaigns of massive resistance against federal power 
by the political leaders of the southern states. But it had equally 
large consequences in the black community; the highest court in the 
land had been compelled to yield the struggle against racism a new 
and large measure of legitimacy. 15 


15 The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National 
Urban League were developed before World War I by black intellectuals and profes¬ 
sionals, liberal whites, and corporate leaders. Their emergence represented a form of 
institutional and leadership development in the black community, although “neither 
organization has ever had anything approaching a mass constituency among the 
Negroes themselves. In spite of their significant contributions to the Negro’s welfare 
. . . neither organization has ever fired the loyalties of the rank and file. Court tests, 
behind-the-scenes negotiations, and educational efforts are not the kinds of activities 
which evoke passionate commitments from those who live their lives outside of the 
middle-class context. For the Negro masses, these organizations have represented a 




208 


Poor People’s Movements 

The concessions forced from northern leaders by northern blacks 
reverberated in the southern ghettos. By mid-century, southern 
ghettos were also swollen with the displaced agricultural poor. 
Protest had become possible; victories had become possible. Except 
for freedom from caste relations, all of the structural developments 
essential to a protest movement that were present in the northern 
ghettos were also to be found in the southern ghettos: the economic 
base formed by a wage laboring class; the consequent occupational 
and institutional expansion and diversification; the volatile under¬ 
class produced by unemployment and underemployment. Concen¬ 
trated, separated, more independent of white domination than ever 
before, and with more cause for hope than ever before, southern 
urban blacks burst forth in protest. 16 

The most dramatic early protest occurred in Montgomery, Ala¬ 
bama. 17 On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress 


somewhat vague benevolence bestowed from beyond the boundaries of their personal 
world” (Michael Lewis, 156). The legal talent represented by the NAACP was a 
resource in the bjack struggle, although the role of legal talent as a factor in winning 
court victories against segregation tends to be exaggerated. Such factors as moderniza¬ 
tion, migration, concentration, the rise of protest, and the cold war struggle against 
Communism had the decisive impact on political opinion, including judicial opinion, 
is in contrast to the factors we stress to explain the rise of black insurgency, other 
analysts point to the frustration generated by “rising expectations,” which in turn were 
generated by rising incomes. In the period under study the data to confirm a theory of 
rising expectations are abundant. In fact, evidence is available to confirm several 
variants of the theory as well. 

Referring just to overall economic improvement, blacks made their greatest advance 
between 1939 and 1951, when the income of male black wage and salary workers rose 
from 37 percent to 62 percent of the income of male white wage and salary workers. 

There is also support for the notion that rapid economic improvement, followed by 
an abrupt downturn, is at the root of unrest. Between the apex of black prosperity in 
1951 and the early 1960s, male black wage and salary income as a percentage of male 
white wage and salary income fell from 62 to about 53. 

Finally, there can be no doubt that a rising class of blacks experienced extreme 
status inconsistency, for despite their improved income which gave them a claim to 
middle-class status, caste and racial degradation still afflicted them. Of the several 
variations of the rising expectations theory, we would incline most, in explaining the 
postwar black movement, towards the discontents originating in status inconsistency. 
However, we think the variables we employ in the text have much greater explanatory 
power. For the studies from which these generalizations about income changes are taken, 
see Ross; Killingsworth; and Henderson. 

17 As John Walton has recently pointed out, Floyd Hunter’s work on Atlanta based on 
research conducted as early as 1950 noted the changing mood of blacks. Hunter judged 
that blacks were becoming increasingly demanding and that “traditional methods of 
suppression and coercion are failing” (149). Hunter attributed this change to the 
emergence of a black leadership stratum that had become somewhat more economically 
secure. For several of many descriptions of the Montgomery bus boycott, see King, 
1958; Reddick; Lewis, 1964; and Lewis, 1970. 




209 


The Civil Rights Movement 

in a local department store, refused to sit in the section of a bus 
restricted to blacks and was arrested under local segregation ordi¬ 
nances. She was the fifth person arrested that year for violating 
segregated seating arrangements on the Montgomery buses. Indigna¬ 
tion over segregation had been mounting, with the bus company a 
particular target of anger. Not only were blacks subjected to the 
indignities of segregated seating but armed drivers were notoriously 
abusive and had killed several blacks. There had been some talk of 
a boycott and even some concrete planning by the Women’s Political 
Council, an organization of middle-class black women (formed when 
the local League of Women Voters refused to admit blacks) who 
had been influenced by the example of a successful boycott staged in 
Baton Rouge a year earlier. Various meetings to discuss grievances 
had been held with the bus company managers, but to no avail. 

As word of the arrest spread, a remarkably instantaneous mobiliza¬ 
tion of the black leadership took place, spurred by the heads of the 
Women’s Political Council and by E. D. Nixon, a well-known activist 
who was both an influential member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping 
Car Porters and a resident of Montgomery. The black ministerial 
alliance joined in and preparations advanced rapidly. By mid¬ 
afternoon on Friday 40,000 leaflets calling for a boycott the following 
Monday morning were being distributed througout the black com¬ 
munity of 50,000 persons. Much of the distribution was done by the 
drivers for a black taxi company who also agreed to transport pas¬ 
sengers for the price of the bus fare. A newspaper reporter who was 
sympathetic to the black cause managed to place a boycott story on 
the front page of the Sunday edition of a local white newspaper and 
black ministers throughout the community exhorted people from 
the pulpits to join the boycott. 

On Monday morning, only four days after the triggering arrest, 
the boycott was nearly 100 percent effective. In the afternoon Martin 
Luther King, a newcomer to the community and thus a figure still 
not marred by factional identifications, was elected to head a per¬ 
manent boycott committee, the Montgomery Improvement Associa¬ 
tion (MIA). That night 4,000 blacks—8 percent of Montgomery’s 
black population—assembled in a local church to wonder at and to 
celebrate what they had done. 

The struggle in Montgomery had begun. In the year before it 
ended, all of the elements in the upheaval that dominated the South 
for the next ten years were revealed. The bus company and local 
city officials were adamant in refusing to make concessions, and so 



210 


Poor People's Movements 

the black community dug in for a long fight. A car pool, with 
forty-eight dispatch points and forty-two collection points, was organ¬ 
ized and it operated with remarkable efficiency throughout the year. 
City officials and white citizen groups, for their part, mounted a 
campaign of harassment. Riders waiting at the car pool dispatching 
and collection points were arrested for vagrancy, for hitchhiking, 
and on other grounds; car insurance was cancelled; leaders of the 
movement lived with constant telephoned threats of assassination. 

The dynamiting of King’s home in late January nearly set off 
a race riot. When King was also arrested for speeding, he was re¬ 
fused bail until hundreds gathered before the jail. City officials tried 
to prevent MIA from establishing an office to coordinate the affairs 
of the boycott. Using the excuse of local building and fire ordinances 
of one kind or another, they forced MIA to move its offices repeatedly 
until a haven was finally found in a building built and owned by a 
local union of black brick layers. 

Moderate elements in Montgomery were effectively silenced during 
these events. Even the downtown merchants who were hard hit by 
the boycott brought only half-hearted pressure for a settlement, for 
they were immobilized by the openly displayed anger of the white 
community. When the White Citizens’ Council invited Senator East- 
land to speak in Montgomery in mid-February, some 12,000 people 
assembled to hear him. And local business leaders had been warned 
that white boycotts would follow any gestures of conciliation toward 
the black movement. 

If positions in Montgomery were thus frozen, the opinions of 
others beyond Montgomery were not. The Montgomery struggle 
attracted attention throughout the country and the world. Money 
poured in from the NAACP, from the United Automobile Workers 
(which had a substantial black membership), and from thousands of 
individuals, especially in the North. National opinion was all the 
more aroused when the leaders of the movement were indicted in late 
February for conspiring to interfere with business. The -trial itself 
attracted worldwide press attention, providing dozens of black wit¬ 
nesses with an opportunity to denounce the southern caste system 
before an international audience. The leaders were found guilty in 
Alabama, of course, but the verdict brought with it invitations for 
speaking engagements in many northern cities and thus the opportun¬ 
ity to garner northern support. 

The struggle wore on until, in November, a local court enjoined 



211 The Civil Rights Movement 

the car pool. Had that action been taken much earlier, it might have 
broken the boycott (the boycott leaders believed they could not defy 
the courts without tainting their claims to moral justification in the 
eyes of the nation). But midway through the trial, with MIA leaders 
awaiting the inevitable negative decision, word was received that the 
U.S. Supreme Court had declared Alabama’s state and local bus 
segregation laws unconstitutional. 

The reprisals in the wake of victory were staggering: four churches 
and several homes were dynamited; several shootings occurred; and 
there were many beatings. The atmosphere of violence so alarmed 
businessmen whose economic losses were by then considerable that 
they finally brought effective pressure to bear on the city administra¬ 
tion with the result that seven whites were arrested for terrorist acts 
and violence began to subside. The black movement of the post- 
World War II period had staged its first major battle and won its 
first major victory. 


The Mobilization of White Defiance 

The white extremisn and violence so characteristic of the South 
historically and so evident during the course of both the Montgomery 
boycott and other protests of the period hardly needed encourage¬ 
ment from elites. But it was provided in any case, for as the caste 
system came under assault, traditional southern white leaders rose 
up in outrage. Respected and influential figures denounced the 
courts, the federal government, and civil rights organizers for un¬ 
warranted infringements upon states’ rights. They did more than 
denounce: Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia called for a pro¬ 
gram of “massive resistance” by state and local governments to 
nullify the power of the courts. The most dramatic symbol of this 
elite movement was the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles”— 
the so-called “Southern Manifesto”—which was sponsored by Senator 
J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. When it was issued in 1956 
it bore the signature of 82 Representatives and 19 Senators or 101 
of the 128 national legislators from states in the former Confederacy. 
The statement called the Brown decision a “clear abuse of judicial 
powers” that was being exploited by “outside agitators.” The 
Supreme Court, it was said, “undertook to exercise their naked 



212 


Poor People's Movements 

judicial power and substituted their personal political and social 
ideas for the established law of the land.” And the document ended 
with a pledge to “use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of 
this decision which is contrary to the Constitution.” These and other 
pronouncements by white southern leaders (Governor Herman 
Talmadge of Georgia proclaimed that the Supreme Court’s decision 
was “national suicide”) had considerable impact; virtually every state 
in the former Confederacy, for example, enacted legislation to pre¬ 
vent or hamper enforcement of the Brown decision, including clos¬ 
ing and padlocking the public schools. 

The legitimacy which southern leaders thus conferred on defiance 
of the federal courts encouraged the emergence of a movement of 
massive resistance among whites. New South-wide segregationist 
organizations mushroomed (some estimates put the number as high 
as fifty), their membership drawn mainly from the small towns and 
rural areas of the black belt. Most of them were eventually swept into 
the better-organized and financed White Citizens’ Council move¬ 
ment which, at its height in 1956, could claim 250,000 members. But 
these 

organized segregationists exercised an influence far more pervading 
than membership rolls implied. Their ranks included the . . . cadres 
of massive resistance. Effective leadership and organization . . . 
[enabled] . . . Council spokesmen to usurp the voice of the white 
community. An uneasy but workable alliance with powerful poli¬ 
tical figures gave its leaders influence at the highest policy levels 
(Bartley, 84). 18 

At the local level, Citizens’ Councils turned out massive amounts 
of propaganda in support of segregation, denounced and intimidated 
whites who spoke up in support of court compliance, and instigated 
systematic retaliation against black activists. The boycott in Mont¬ 
gomery had been followed by a similarly successful campaign in 
Tallahassee in June 1956, and boycotts against white businesses were 
spreading to other parts of the South. In response, Citizens’ Councils 
organized or supported the use of economic sanctions against blacks. 
Blacks as well as civil rights sympathizers were evicted from tenant 
farm shacks, were fired from jobs, were denied loans, and had their 


18 In Deep South Says Never, John Barlow Martin also vividly portrays the ideology and 
activities of the White Citizen’s Councils. 




213 The Civil Rights Movement 

mortgages foreclosed. With black boycotts spreading and economic 
reprisals against blacks worsening, it could be fairly said that eco¬ 
nomic warfare was being waged in the South in the latter half of 
the 1950s. 

In the presidential campaign of 1956 national political leaders 
attempted to play down the divisive race issue, particularly avoiding 
the inflammatory Brown decision. The Republican platform said that 
the party “accepts the [Brown] decision”; the Democrats said that 
the decision had generated “consequences of vast importance.” 19 Dur¬ 
ing the campaign Eisenhower declared, “I don’t believe you can 
change the hearts of men with laws or decisions,” and Stevenson, in 
response to the question of whether he would employ federal troops 
to enforce the orders of the courts, replied “I think that would be a 
great mistake. That is exactly what brought on the Civil War. It 
can’t be done by troops, or bayonets. We must proceed gradually, 
not upsetting habits or traditions that are older than the Republic” 
(Anthony Lewis, 1964, 108). In other words, the civil rights stance 
of the Democrats in 1956 was designed to regain the insurgent South. 

Although both parties avoided the school desegregation issue, the 
Republicans saw opportunities in the difficulties being experienced 
by the Democratic Party over the race question. There was the pos¬ 
sibility of playing upon this issue to make further gains among 
whites in the South, 20 or of making equally important gains among 
blacks in the ghettos of the North. In some measure Republican 
strategists were uncertain of the proper course: 

Like the Democrats, the Republicans were torn between conflicting 
strategies. Some GOP leaders looked longingly toward the Negro 
vote in the northern states and recommended a vigorous civil rights 
policy. Other party strategists, watching the disintegrating position 
of the national Democratic party in the South, visualized further 


As Muller has said, the Democratic platform "wobbled on civil rights. While pledging 
continued efforts to eradicate all discrimination the key plank added: ‘We reject all 
proposals for the use of force to interfere with orderly determination of these matters 
by the courts’ ’’ (177). During the campaign Stevenson continued to reiterate his 
general support for civil rights, but also continued to resist advocating specific remedies, 
such as the use of federal force to compel compliance with court orders. 

20 For more than two decades the South was the only region of the country where 
Republicans had been making gains. In the election of 1932 they polled 18 percent of 
the vote in the eleven southern states; by 1948, they polled 27 percent. (In 1956, they 
would poll half of the southern vote.) See Lubell (1966, 226). 




214 


Poor People’s Movements 

Republican gains among white voters below the Potomac and coun¬ 
seled a cautious approach to the problems of desegregation (Anthony 
Lewis, 1964, 62). 

However, the Republicans finally cast their lot with the potential 
for gain among northern blacks, for the congressional Republicans 
were all from northern states where blacks were concentrating. Under 
the urging of Herbert Brownell, the attorney general, and of other 
party leaders, Eisenhower sent a civil rights bill to Congress in 1956 
and Republicans pushed for it, prodded as they were by a president 
“who was demanding party support for a civil rights bill that con¬ 
ceivably could revolutionize Negro politics and bring the Negro 
vote back to the party of Lincoln’’ (Evans and Novak, 126). 21 For 
northern Democrats the Republican action presented a major di¬ 
lemma, especially in an election year. Many felt it was essential to 
take decisive action on civil rights; others feared the impact of such 
action on southern support. In the end Lyndon B. Johnson, the 
Senate Majority Leader, conspired with other southern congressmen 
to kill the bill, and the Congress adjourned. 

The election of 1956 indicated that the Democratic strategy of 
avoiding civil rights issues was not succeeding. The basis of the 
North-South Democratic coalition was inexorably weakening. On the 
one side, southern defections continued. When the returns were in 
Stevenson fared slightly worse than he had in the election of 1952. 
Four states in the Outer South—Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and 
Texas—remained in the Republican column, a reflection in part of 
the two-party system developing as a result of industrial moderniza¬ 
tion. And in the Deep South, Louisiana defected. The Democrats, 
despite a policy of conciliation on the race question, thus suffered 
a net loss of one additional southern state over the election of 1952 
and analysts began to speculate that the two-party system in the 
south might be reviving. 

On the other side, the election of 1956 revealed that black allegiance 
to the Democratic Party was also weakening. “Partisan as well as 
non-political spokesmen for the race had warned [in advance of the 
election] that resurgence of racial bigotry in the South endangered 
the old alliance. Polls indicated that the Democrats could not count 


2 i Eisenhower had been deeply upset by the Brown decision; he told aides that he 
thought “the decision was wrong.” But he did appear to believe that “every American 
citizen was entitled to the right to vote” (Alexander, 118, 194). 




215 The Civil Rights Movement 

on the overwhelming majorities from Negro districts which had 
been returned consistently during the past 20 years” (Moon, 1957, 
219). When the ballots were counted, a Gallup poll reported that 
“of all the major groups in the nation’s population, the one that 
shifted most to the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket . . . was the Negro 
voter.” Stevenson had won about 80 percent of the black vote in 
1952, but he won only about 60 percent in 1956. The upward trend 
of black support for the Democratic Party initiated in the election 
of 1936 was broken. 

Analysts of the election of 1956 uniformly attribute the falloff in 
the Democratic black vote to Stevenson’s efforts to maintain party 
unity at the expense of the civil rights issue. Matthews and Protho 
state: “The significant shift to Eisenhower in 1956 was caused by 
the belief that neither Stevenson nor the Democratic party was 
sound, from the Negro viewpoint, on the race issue” (391-392). Con¬ 
siderable support for this view derives from the regional pattern of 
defections: "Significantly, the closer the Negro lived to the resurgent 
terror, the sharper was his defection from the dominant party” 
(Moon, 1957, 226). In many southern precincts the dropoff in black 
Democratic votes was startling. For example, “In 1952 the Illinois 
governor carried Atlanta Negro precincts better than 2 to 1. Four 
years later he received less than 15 percent of the vote in these same 
precincts” (Moon, 1957, 221). 22 

Although the sharpest black defections occurred in the South, 
many northern black voters signaled their disapproval of the Demo¬ 
cratic Party in another way: 

There was a sharp decline in balloting in many Negro districts 
throughout the country, but particularly in Northern industrial cen¬ 
ters from which, in previous years, the Democrats had received huge 
majorities. This, despite an increased Negro population in most of 
these cities. . . . 

In Philadelphia, 27,000 fewer votes were cast than in 1952 for 
a loss of 14.7 percent. Voting in the Negro wards of Kansas City, 
Mo., was off a fifth for a decline of 5,900 in the number of ballots 
cast. The percentage loss was even higher in Boston where the vote 
was down 28.5. The Negro vote declined 19 percent in Atlantic City; 


22 Lubell (1966) also describes these extreme reversals among black voters in a number 
of southern cities. For a detailed examination of black voting patterns in northern cities 
which shows that “the peak of Negro allegiance to the Democratic Party . . . was 
reached in 1952,” see Glantz. 




216 


Poor People’s Movements 

15.6 in Toledo; 15.4 in Pittsburgh; 12 in Chicago; 9.3 in Brooklyn; 

9.1 in Youngstown, Ohio; 6.4 in Cleveland; and 5.9 in Harlem 

(Moon, 1957, 228). 

In addition to black discontent over the civil rights question, de¬ 
fections and low turnout may also have reflected the fact that the 
northern urban Democratic Party apparatus was doing little to assure 
black allegiance. Blacks were not being quickly absorbed into the 
political organizations in the northern cities. Northern urban politi¬ 
cal organizations, which drew their main support from working- 
class and middle-class white groups, were hardly prepared to yield 
much to their enlarging black constituency. In part this was because 
racial antagonism among whites in the cities was intensifying as 
black numbers grew. In part it was because Democratic control of 
many large cities was assured and did not depend on black votes, 
so that few urban Democratic leaders felt compelled to mount voter 
registration campaigns in the ghettos, or to draw blacks into party 
councils, or to encourage and reward their political participation 
with patronage. 23 And so, as the numbers of northern blacks swelled, 
the reins which urban politicians held over the otherwise steadfastly 
Democratic ghettos fell slack. 

Black voting defections in 1956 were a cause for alarm, however, 
among national Democratic political leaders. By the mid-fifties, mi¬ 
gration had brought a great many blacks into the North; moreover, 
some 90 percent of them settled in the central cities of the ten 
most populous industrial states, and thus in states of crucial impor¬ 
tance in presidential contests. In a number of these cities blacks had 
come to be the largest “ethnic” bloc. From the perspective of 
potential electoral influence in presidential contests, blacks were 
strategically concentrated. Moreover as southern defections developed 
in the elections of 1948 and 1952, the Democratic Party became all 
the more dependent on the northern vote. 

Despite the growing importance of the black vote, Democratic 


23 Just how little blacks benefited from municipal politics, despite their enlarging num¬ 
bers in many cities, is revealed by a study conducted in the 1960s in Chicago, where 
blacks had been a substantial bloc for years: “What we found was that in 1965 some 20 
percent of the people in Cook County were Negro, and 28 percent of the people in 
Chicago were Negro. . . . Out of a total of 1,088 policy-making positions in government 
Negroes held just 58“ (Baron, 28-29). For an exhaustive historical study of racist 
patterns in the distribution of municipal patronage in Chicago and New York, see 
Katznelson. 




217 The Civil Rights Movement 

leaders had continued to resist granting civil rights concessions. “The 
northern Democratic leaders recognized that historic injustices had 
to end,” Schlesinger suggests, “but they thought that steady and 
rational progress step by step over a period of years would suffice to 
satisfy the victims of injustice and contain their incipient revolution” 
(926). More likely, Democratic leaders simply did not want to further 
endanger electoral allegiances in the South. Nor, until 1956, did 
they have to take that risk, for blacks had remained steadfastly loyal. 
But once the black vote, like the southern white vote, also became 
unstable, the Democratic strategy of proceeding cautiously in order 
not to antagonize the South could no longer succeed. It was not, con¬ 
trary to what other analysts have said, the rise of a substantial black 
electoral bloc in the northern states that finally set the stage for civil 
rights concessions; it was the rise of black defections. 

One of these concessions was to come in the year immediately 
following the election of 1956, when Congress enacted the first Civil 
Rights Act since 1875. Electoral instability played a significant role 
in the formation of the coalition in Congress which brought about 
passage of the bill. For the Democrats, there was little choice but to 
champion the measure; perhaps the party could afford southern de¬ 
defections, or black defections, but it could not afford both. For the 
Republicans, black defections confirmed the potential of their modest 
civil rights appeals prior to the election. Consequently the Republi¬ 
cans again seized the initiative and resubmitted the previously re¬ 
jected civil rights bill. In doing so, they broke ranks again with 
southern Democrats. The cleaving of this alliance, which had pre¬ 
viously thwarted all efforts to secure civil rights legislation, was a 
direct consequence of voting defections among northern blacks. 

With a civil rights bill once again before Congress, Johnson 
quickly seized control, and it was he who engineered the necessary 
compromises to forestall a southern filibuster. Johnson’s evolution 
on the civil rights question was itself a reflection of the impact of 
electoral dissensus on the Democratic Party, for until the mid-fifties 
Johnson had consistently refused to support civil rights legislation: 

Ever since 1937, when he first entered the House, Johnson had voted 
no on civil rights 100 percent of the time; no on an anti-lynching 
bill in 1940; no on a Democratic leadership amendment in 1940 
eliminating segregation in the armed services; no on anti-poll-tax 
bills in 1942, 1943, 1945; no in 1946 on an anti-discrimination 
amendment offered by Representative Adam Clayton Powell of 



218 


Poor People’s Movements 

Harlem to the federal school-lunch program; yes in 1949 on an anti- 
Negro amendment proposed by Mississippi’s Senator James East- 
land to the perennial District of Columbia home rule bill. The list 
was long, the record unbroken (Evans and Novak, 121). 

For Johnson the rise of the civil rights issue, and of Republican 
efforts to profit from it, posed an excruciating dilemma. Although 
his power in the Senate was based on the southern bloc, he had 
strong presidential ambitions. To achieve that ambition he had to 
decide whether he was “a Westerner and national Democrat,” or “a 
Southerner and regional Democrat” (Evans and Novak, 122). By 
1956 Johnson’s decision was no longer seriously in doubt; he did 
not, for example, sign the “Southern Manifesto.” To continue a 
course of opposition to civil rights was to foreclose a larger career 
in national Democratic politics. 

The evolution of Johnson as the mock champion of civil rights 
began after the splintering of his hopes in 1956 [in which he lost 
a bid for the Vice-Presidential nomination owing largely to north¬ 
ern opposition]. He got the message: victory lay in the cities, victory 
lay within the union blocs, the black blocs, the immigrant blocs, 
the big city bosses, with the independent voters, and if possible with 
farm blocs, though that was the last to worry about. Johnson saw 
that he who gets the South gets naught. . . . LBJ saw that he had 
to get the magnolia blossom out of his lapel, and he coolly set 
about it. He would pass a civil rights act. If necessary, he would 
pass two . . . (Sherrill, 193). 

The chief problem confronting Johnson was the prospect of a 
southern filibuster—it would have to be forestalled. The bill con¬ 
tained provisions (and an amendment) which angered the South; 
on the other hand, Republicans and northern Democrats were pre¬ 
pared to press for Senate rule changes that would weaken the power 
of the filibuster if the South obstructed passage of the bill. With each 
camp fearful of the other’s power, Johnson was able to gain support 
for a compromise bill that was essentially symbolic and it passed 
(without a filibuster) by an overwhelming margin (72 to 18, with 
Lyndon Johnson and four other southerners in the majority). 

In other words the Democratic Party had once again weathered the 
deep division within its ranks. But there was this difference: it had 
done so only by enacting a civil rights measure, however weak its 
provisions may have been. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was signifi¬ 
cant for that reason, for it presaged the end of an older strategy of 



219 The Civil Rights Movement 

coping with regional divisions by avoiding the civil rights issue. The 
growing size and instability of the black vote had forced the begin¬ 
ning of a new mode of adaptation to those divisions, an adaptation 
in which concessions would be made to blacks. Henceforth the strug¬ 
gle would be over the substance of those concessions. 

Even as the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was being debated and en¬ 
acted, the massive resistance strategy of southern whites intensified, 
for it was clearly the intent of “the dominant political leadership in 
the deep South . . . [to] . . . force all hesitant communities into 
irreconcilable opposition to the Supreme Court” (Lubell, 1956, 196). 
Considering the outright defiance of the federal courts which this 
entailed, a major crisis was inevitable. Little Rock, Arkansas, was 
one of those hesitant communities, and it became a major locus of 
the looming crisis. 

Governor Faubus, a moderate on race, gradually lost control over 
the white populace in Arkansas as the ideology of massive resistance 
swept the South. Faced with overwhelming evidence that white vio¬ 
lence would be provoked if the Little Rock school board imple¬ 
mented its court-ordered desegregation plans, Faubus appealed to 
Eisenhower for federal support. 24 When that appeal failed, he 
ordered out the Arkansas National Guard on September 2, 1957, to 
prevent desegregation. The beleaguered school board turned to the 
federal courts for instructions and was promptly ordered to persist 
in carrying out the desegregation plan. Nine black students then 
braved violent white mobs to enter Central High School, but were 
turned back by Guardsmen. School officials again appealed to the 
federal courts for a temporary suspension of desegregation plans, but 
were refused. The court also ordered the U. S. Justice Department to 
file for an injunction against Governor Faubus and top officials in 
the National Guard, and on September 20, hearings were held on that 
petition. That same day the court ordered Governor Faubus and the 
National Guard to desist from obstructing desegregation, and the 


24 Eisenhower’s clear displeasure with the Brown decision, and his repeated statements 
that the race problem was a problem to be solved in the states and “in men’s hearts’’ 
must have encouraged southerners to believe that resistance could succeed, even outright 
defiance of the courts. As late as July 1957, as the crisis in Little Rock took form, Eisen¬ 
hower told a press conference that “I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that would 
ever induce me to send federal troops into an area to enforce the orders of a federal 
court.” As Dunbar has remarked, “To calculate . . . the violence done to the public 
peace by the President’s six-year-long policy of neutrality would be neither easy nor 
unfair” (20). 




220 


Poor People’s Movements 

governor promptly withdrew the Guardsmen. Little Rock officials 
were horrified by the prospect of mob violence which would surely 
follow and appealed for federal marshals, but Eisenhower again re¬ 
fused to intervene. Finally, as mob violence worsened during the 
next few days, Eisenhower had to federalize the Arkansas National 
Guard and send in paratroops to restore order. 

The Little Rock episode went far toward polarizing racial senti¬ 
ments across the country. At the time both camps in the civil rights 
struggle probably drew comfort from it. For blacks and their allies 
federal intervention could be defined as a triumph of federal power 
over sectional racism. On the other hand white southern leaders 
could not fail to recognize the deep reluctance of the federal execu¬ 
tive branch to be drawn into the controversy, except under the most 
extreme conditions, thus suggesting that other methods of circum¬ 
venting the courts might well continue to succeed. 

There were many forms such resistance could take. In 1958 for 
example, a concerted attack on the Supreme Court “reached its 
height . . . when the House of Representatives passed five bills de¬ 
signed to curb the Court’s authority. These measures failed to re¬ 
ceive Senate approval, but the anti-Court coalition evidenced sub¬ 
stantial strength in the upper chamber” (Bartley, 291). The militancy 
of southern resistance to desegregation, the passage of anti-integration 
laws in one state after another (including closing the public schools), 
and the anti-Court movement within Congress combined “to bring 
the Supreme Court under the heaviest attack it had experienced since 
[the court-packing episode] in 1937” (Bartley, 291). One result was 
that the Court moderated its views: while continuing to affirm the 
general principle of equal protection of the laws as stated in Brown , 
it upheld the concept of discretionary pupil placement, and thus 
granted southern school officials the means to engage in tokenistic 
modes of school desegregation. Massive resistance, in short, still had 
momentum. 

Nevertheless, mounting regional tensions, together with the tenta¬ 
tive and fumbling efforts by the Republicans to exploit them, were 
beginning to produce some gains for blacks. A modest gain was 
made in 1960 with the passage of a second civil rights act: 

Johnson realized from the start of the 86th Congress that the mas¬ 
sive Democratic majorities elected in 1958 would demand another 
civil rights bill to close loopholes in Negro voting protection. Con¬ 
sequently, he hoped to pass a minimal bill as quickly as possible 
in 1959, again avoiding a Southern filibuster, and well in advance 



221 The Civil Rights Movement 

of the 1960 election. On January 20, 1959, Lyndon Johnson in* 
troduced his first civil rights bill. A four-part measure, it featured 
the racial conciliation service he had considered in 1957 but dis¬ 
carded. The reaction was uniformly unfavorable, from civil rights 
advocates and segregationists alike. A much broader civil rights bill 
sponsored by President Eisenhower became the framework for de¬ 
bate (Evans and Novak, 220). 

Eisenhower’s bill was debated in early 1960. There was no way John¬ 
son could persuade the southern delegation to accept the bill, and no 
way he could persuade the Senate liberals to modify it. The result 
was a filibuster that dragged on for months, and could not be 
beaten. Finally, “to appease the triumphant Southerners, Johnson 
and Eisenhower’s Attorney General, William P. Rogers, agreed to 
delete the bill’s two toughest sections (aimed at the desegregation of 
schools and jobs),’’ and that assured the bill’s passage (Evans and 
Novak, 221). What remained of the original bill were criminal 
penalties for bombings, bomb threats, and mob action designed to 
obstruct court orders, especially school desegregation orders, and an 
ineffective provision for court-appointed voting referees. Every Re¬ 
publican Senator voted affirmatively, and Eisenhower signed the bill 
on May 6. 


The Resurgence of Black and White Defiance 

Just as the Democrats were to regain the presidency in 1960, defiance 
by blacks erupted again, and on an increasingly massive scale. It was 
no longer mainly the white leaders of the South who provoked con¬ 
frontations with the federal government; in this period, civil rights 
activists began to embrace a “strategy of using civil disobedience to 
force local governments into conflict with federal authority” (Killian, 
63). In reaction white violence worsened, spurred by southern leaders, 
especially governors, and acted out by police agents and white mobs. 

On February 1, 1960, four students from the Negro Agricultural 
and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, entered a 
variety store and were refused service at the lunch counter where 
they sat in violation of caste rules. Fueled by “the discrepancy be¬ 
tween the promise of desegregation and the reality of tokenism” 
(Killian, 59), the sit-in movement swept like a brush fire from one 
locale to another. By the second and third weeks of February similar 



222 


Poor People’s Movements 

actions were occurring throughout the state, organized by students 
from Duke University and North Carolina College. Despite arrests 
and violence Fisk University students in Tennessee quickly took 
up the tactic, as did students from universities located in Atlanta. 
Within those first few weeks, “sit-ins spread to fifteen cities in five 
southern states” (Zinn, 6). 25 

The spread of the movement to Atlanta was of special significance, 
for after a series of organizational meetings following the Mont¬ 
gomery boycott, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership 
Conference (SCLC) and located its offices in Atlanta, where he also 
took a new pastorate. Quick to see the significance of the student- 
initiated sit-in movement, SCLC officials offered moral and financial 
support (despite the opposition, it should be noted, of officials in 
several established national civil rights organizations). In April, with 
SCLC aid, student delegates from dozens of universities assembled 
at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to form the Student 
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

The students who composed SNCC were animated by a belief in 
the efficacy of civil disobedience. Zinn described them as having 
“tremendous respect for the potency of the demonstration, an eager¬ 
ness to move out of the political maze of normal parliamentary pro¬ 
cedure and to confront policy-makers directly with a power beyond 
orthodox politics—the power of people in the streets and on the 
picket line” (13). And Clark said that “SNCC seems restless with 
long-term negotiation and the methods of persuasion of the Urban 
League, and it assumes that the legislative and litigation approach of 
the NAACP” had exhausted its possibilities (259). 

Through the summer and fall of 1960 militant SNCC activities 
mushroomed. No one could say what precisely was happening, or 
who was involved. There was no organization to monitor protest 
activities, 26 one participant said, “because the students were too 
busy protesting. ... No one really needed ‘organization’ because we 
then had a movement” (Zinn, 36). Following the earlier organizing 
meeting several hundred delegates assembled in Atlanta in October, 


25 Graphic descriptions of the sit-ins and related direct action campaigns are available 
in a number of sources. For example, Patrick discusses the actions in Winston-Salem; 
Proudfoot discusses Knoxville; Walker discusses Atlanta; and Killian and Smith discuss 
Tallahassee. See also the Southern Regional Council (1961). 

26 Except, of course, for the FBI. 




223 The Civil Rights Movement 

ostensibly to bring some semblance of structure to the movement 
which they had created. Even then, little by way of structure resulted. 
SNCC “was not ... a membership organization. This left the ad¬ 
hesion of individuals to the group fluid and functional, based simply 
on who was carrying on activity. . . . The twig was bent, and the 
tree grew that way” (Zinn, 37-38). In this same vein Clark remarked: 
“Instead of a single leader, SNCC has many ‘leaders’ ” (259- 
260). (Among these many leaders, Bob Moses, Jim Forman, Stokely 
Carmichael, and John Lewis were perhaps the best known.) 

Indeed none of the direct-action organizations in this struggle 
were either much organized or much oriented toward building for¬ 
mal membership. CORE also typified this point. Although its money- 
contributing membership rose from a few thousand in 1959 to 
80,000 in 1964, the active members never exceeded 3,000-5,000, dis¬ 
tributed among over one hundred chapters (Rich, 124; Meier and 
Rudwick, 227). The point is that “direct action . . . requires only 
small numbers of persons, but these must be so highly motivated and 
involved that they are willing to risk the great hardships involved in 
direct action. . . . Southern CORE typified this generalization” (Bell, 
90). In short, the direct-action organizations which developed during 
the civil rights struggle were cadre organizations. 27 

The cadres—whether in SNCC or CORE or SCLC—at first en¬ 
gaged in exemplary actions. Thus “the essence of SNCC leadership 
appears to be this willingness to assume personal risks, to expose 
oneself to imprisonment and brutality. Its members play the impor¬ 
tant role of commando raiders on the more dangerous and exposed 
fronts of the racial struggle” (Clark, 260). Often in groups of just 
two or three or a half dozen, the cadres were the most active demon¬ 
strators. “The first sit-in students who actually served their full jail 
terms in the 1960 sit-ins,” for example, “were members of Tallahassee 


27 These cadres had their origins in the new southern urban black working class being 
produced by economic modernization. “If one were to generalize roughly about the 
SNCC staff in the Deep South, one would say they are Negro, they come from the South, 
their families are poor and of the working class, but they have been to college” (Zinn, 
10). Bell’s analysis of a southern CORE chapter yielded a similar conclusion: “Clearly 
then, these CORE members stemmed from the ‘upper lower’ class within the Negro 
community’s system of social stratification. Their parents were members of the unskilled 
but steady and respectable working class. The CORE members themselves were upwardly 
mobile . . . being college students” (89). See Ladd (218-223) and Meier (1970) for 
additional confirming data. For a discussion of the way in which these activist cadres 
spurred the more traditional leadership into action, see Walker. 




224 


Poor People’s Movements 

CORE. The first of the Freedom Riders to serve their full jail terms 
rather than appeal were members of New Orleans CORE’” (Rich, 
116) SNCC participants called this tactic “Jail-no-bail”: 

When ten students were arrested in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 
February 1961, the SNCC steering committee, meeting in Atlanta, 
made its boldest organization decision up to that date. Four people, 
it was agreed, would go to Rock Hill to sit in, would be arrested, 
and would refuse bail, as the first ten students had done, in order 
to dramatize the injustice to the nation. . . . “Jail-no-bail” spread. 

In Atlanta, in February, 1961, eighty students from the Negro col¬ 
leges went to jail and refused to come out (Zinn, 38-39). 

Such exemplary actions, in turn, inspired a mass mobilization. 
“All over, the number of people on [CORE] picket lines sky¬ 
rocketed,” but only a few were CORE members (Meier and Rudwick, 
227). And although SCLC had sixty-five chapters throughout the 
South, its formal structure was “amorphous and symbolic” so that 
the large numbers of people drawn to its demonstrations were not 
members (Clark, 255-256). This mobilization took place mainly 
through segregated institutions where people were already “orga¬ 
nized”: the black colleges, churches, and ghetto neighborhoods. In the 
1960-1961 period, the activists from SNCC, CORE, and SCLC were 
extremely successful in arousing black college students throughout 
the South. Twenty-five percent of the black students in the predomi¬ 
nantly black colleges in the eleven states of the South participated in 
the sit-in movement during the first year, according to Matthews and 
Prothro. And they did so despite constant retaliation. Of these active 
students, “One out of every 6 . . . was arrested; one of every 20 was 
thrown in jail. About 1 in every 10 reported having been pushed, 
jostled, or spat upon; the same proportion was either clubbed, beaten, 
gassed, or burned; another 8 percent were run out of town. Only 
11 percent of the protestors reported that nothing untoward had 
happened to them” (412-415). The cadres also mobilized large num¬ 
bers of poor and middle-class blacks throughout the South for civil 
disobedience. As a result, “Over 50,000 people—most were Negroes, 
some were white—participated in one demonstration or another 
in a hundred cities, and over 3,600 demonstrators spent time in jail” 
in the first year following the lunch counter sit-ins (Zinn, 16). 



225 


The Civil Rights Movement 


PRESIDENTIAL EFFORTS TO COPE 
WITH ELECTORAL INSTABILITY 

The arrests, the mob violence, and the police brutality that were 
provoked by these protest activities rapidly created major dilemmas 
for national political leaders. For example, on October 25—a few 
days before the presidential election of 1960—King was arrested 
and convicted for violating a twelve-months’ term of parole which 
had been meted out for an earlier and minor infraction of the traffic 
codes. The parole violation consisted of joining students in a sit-in 
and the sentence was four months at hard labor in the Reidsville 
State Prison, a penal camp in rural Georgia. Overnight the White 
House was deluged with telegrams and letters from governors, con¬ 
gressmen, citizens, and foreign dignitaries, all of whom feared for 
King’s safety at the hands of rural southern penal officials. 

President Eisenhower and candidate Nixon weighed the potential 
electoral gains and losses of intervening, deciding against taking 
action. Kennedy decided otherwise and it was that decision which 
has since been credited by some observers with having turned the 
election to him (Schlesinger, 930). His call to King’s wife, together 
with a call by Robert Kennedy to the judge who had committed 
King to prison, caused little short of delirium in black communities 
throughout the nation. Within days of King’s prompt release from 
prison two million copies of a brochure condemning Republican 
inaction and exalting Kennedy’s action were being circulated in 
the ghettos. 

On the whole, however, the Democratic presidential campaign 
was marked by ambivalence on the race issue. Nothing in Kennedy’s 
career suggested that he held strong feelings about the race question: 

Since Negro rights played so important and dramatic a part in his 
Presidency, historians will always be interested in Kennedy’s earlier 
stand on civil rights. Until the Presidential campaign of 1960, Ken¬ 
nedy was not an aggressive fighter for the Negro. During his quest 
for the vice-presidential nomination in 1956, he wooed the Southern 
delegations and stressed his moderation. After 1956, he sought to 
keep alive the South’s benevolent feeling for him, and his speeches 
in that region, sprinkled with unflattering references to carpetbag¬ 
gers like Mississippi Governor Alcorn and praise for L. Q. C. Lamar 
and other Bourbon “redeemers,” had a faint ring of Claude 
Bowers’ Tragic Era. In 1957, during the fight in the Senate over 



226 


Poor People's Movements 

the Civil Rights Bill, Kennedy lined up for the O’Mahoney amend¬ 
ment to give trials to those held in criminal contempt of court. 
Civil rights militants regarded this as emasculating, since those ac¬ 
cused of impeding Negro voting would find more leniency in 
Southern juries than in federal judges (Carleton, 279). 28 

At the nominating convention a major confrontation with southern 
extremists was carefully prevented, for “the Kennedy forces avoided 
antagonizing southerners with any action beyond a strong civil 
rights plank” (Tindall, 42). 29 The Republican campaign was marked 
by a similar ambivalence. Nixon, despite a plank endorsing civil 
rights in strong language, campaigned vigorously among whites in 
the South, probably counting on southern defections in response to 
the Catholic issue, but also appealing covertly to the segregationist 
vote. 30 In this muddy situation Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia de¬ 
fected to the Republicans, and Alabama and Mississippi voted for 
unpledged electors. As for the black vote, it moved back to the Demo¬ 
cratic Party; Kennedy received 68 percent, up about eight points 
from the election of 1956. 

Moreover, it must be said that the black vote moved back in 
just the right places. Landslide majorities in some of the nation’s 
largest ghettos helped Kennedy carry key states by razor-thin majori¬ 
ties: 

It had been Kennedy’s strength in the great Northern cities to which 
Southern Negroes had migrated that produced hairline victories for 
the Democrats in the eight states experts consider crucial to success 
in any close election—New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, 
Maryland, Missouri, Minnesota, and New Jersey. All but one— 
Missouri—went to Eisenhower in 1956. All eight went for Kennedy 


28 On the other hand, Kennedy appeared to understand that a transformation was 
occurring in the Democratic Party. In the late 1950s, responding to a question as to how 
he would manage North-South divisions in the party were he to become president, 
Kennedy made this comment: “My judgment is that with the industrialization of the 
South you are going to find greater uniformity in the Democratic party than you had in 
the past’' (Burns, 276). 

29 For a discussion of the intraparty struggles which afflicted the Democratic Party 
throughout this period, see Sindler (1962). 

30 “As a smart politician, [Nixon] could make fatal errors. The plainest example in the 
campaign was his stand—or failure to take a stand—on the issue of civil rights. Having 
fought hard for a strong plank in his party’s platform, which might win the Negro vote 
in the North, he proceeded to talk out of the other side of his mouth in the South, 
hoping to win its vote too. ... In his shocked inability to understand why his prot£g6 
lost to Kennedy, Eisenhower might have thought a bit about the obvious reasons why 
[Nixon] lost both the South and the Negro vote in the North” (Muller, 258). 




227 The Civil Rights Movement 

in 1960, on the strength of the big-city vote. The Republican 
National Committee, using Philadelphia as a laboratory, made a 
precinct-by-precinct study of why this happened. The study revealed, 
among other things, that their candidate won only 18 percent of 
the Negro vote, leaving 82 percent for Kennedy (Fuller, 113). 

If any group had reason to expect presidential action on its behalf, 
it was blacks following the election of 1960. Without the huge black 
majorities in the key industrial centers of the nation, Kennedy could 
not have been elected. 31 Still, “Almost two years were to pass before 
Kennedy telephoned again” (David Lewis, 1970, 130). He had won 
office, but narrowly, and white southern defections had been no small 
cause of his near defeat. A policy of conciliation toward the South 
still appeared to be the expedient course of action. 

Moreover, Kennedy (like earlier Democratic presidents) was con¬ 
cerned that a confrontation with Congress over civil rights would cost 
him support on other domestic legislation. “The reason was arith¬ 
metic. . . . To solidify the conservative coalition—by presenting an 
issue on which Southerners had traditionally sought Republican sup¬ 
port in exchange for Southern opposition to other measures—would 
doom his whole program” (Sorensen, 475^176; see also Schlesinger, 
93). Instead of legislative action, therefore, the president opted for a 
strategy of executive action: 

Kennedy’s task was to accomplish so much by Executive action that 
the demand for immediate legislation could be kept under control. 
Power to enforce existing civil-rights law lay in the Department of 
Justice. And the hand that would wield it was the Attorney Gen¬ 
eral’s. A Kennedy in that position could convey not only the color 
of Presidential authority but the personal moral force of the Presi¬ 
dent as well. ... If Kennedy’s Attorney General won the confidence 
of those chiefly concerned with civil rights and maintained a strong 
impression of forward motion in this field, the President could stall 
on supporting new civil-rights legislation until after Congress had 


3i Thus Theodore F. White writes that Kennedy “felt that he must campaign per¬ 
sonally for the big Northeastern industrial states. . . . These grand calculations worked. 
Of the nine big states . . . Kennedy carried seven. . . . The most precise response of 
result to strategy lay, however, in the Negro vote. ... In analyzing the Negro vote, 
almost all dissections agree that seven out of ten Negroes voted for Kennedy for 
President. ... It is difficult to see how Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, 
or Delaware (with 74 electoral votes) could have been won had the Republican- 
Democratic split of the Negro wards and precincts remained as it was, unchanged from 
the Eisenhower charm of 1956“ (1961, 384-386). See also Schlesinger, 930. 




228 


Poor People's Movements 

approved his social and economic program—and that required 
Southern votes (Fuller, 112, 116). 32 

The Justice Department thus became the chief instrument of civil 
rights action by the administration. Civil rights litigation was given 
higher priority within the department and more litigation was under¬ 
taken than had previously been the case, especially in school desegre¬ 
gation and on voting rights. At the same time, however, Kennedy 
appointed southerners to the federal bench who caused great dismay 
among blacks. James Farmer reflected the sentiments of activists: 

To be sure, the Justice Department was more active in initiating 
voter registration suits in the South than it had been under Eisen¬ 
hower, but, presumably with the concurrence of the Justice Depart¬ 
ment, Kennedy had appointed three known racists to the federal 
bench: William Harold Cox of Mississippi (who described two hun¬ 
dred voter applicants as a “bunch of niggers . . . chimpanzees who 
ought to be in the movies rather than being registered to vote”); 

J. Robert Elliott of Georgia (“I don’t want those pinks, radicals, 
and black voters to outvote those who are trying to preserve our 
segregation laws and traditions”); and E. Gordon West of Louisiana 
(who called the 1954 school desegregation decision “one of the truly 
regrettable decisions of all time”). Racist federal judges are perhaps 
the greatest obstacle to federally enforced equal rights in the South 
today (40). 

In the field of employment Kennedy issued an executive order 
against discrimination in federal employment, and hired more blacks 
than any previous administration, including the appointment of a 
number of blacks to top positions in the administration. He also in¬ 
structed all departments to systematically upgrade blacks. Con¬ 
sequently, “The number of Negroes holding jobs in the middle 
grades of the civil service increased 36.6 percent from June 1961 
to June 1963; in the top grades, 88.2 percent” (Schlesinger, 933). 
The president also strengthened federal efforts to reduce private^ 
discrimination in employment through the President’s Committee 
on Equal Employment Opportunity, headed by Vice-President Lyn¬ 
don B. Johnson, although no federal contracts with private employers 
were canceled as a result of this committee’s efforts. 


32 Fuller describes the strategy of executive action in some detail. So too do Schlesinger; 
Sorensen; Fleming; Navasky’s account is the fullest and the most useful. 




229 


The Civil Rights Movement 


DEFIANCE SPREADS 

But the Kennedy Administration’s activity on the civil rights front 
was both too much for southern leaders and far too little for civil 
rights activists. Consequently both camps escalated tactics of defiance, 
one seeking to weaken efforts by the federal government to enforce 
the law, the other to strengthen the federal role in enforcing the law. 
The most dramatic tactics in this period were the “freedom rides” 
organized by civil rights activists, and the confrontations over the 
desegregation of institutions of higher education precipitated by 
several southern governors. 

One of the most conspicuous symbols of southern caste arrange¬ 
ments was the segregation of bus and train terminals—from waiting 
areas, to eating facilities, to restrooms. Since these public areas were 
under the jurisdiction of a federal agency—the Interstate Commerce 
Commission (ICC)—they were a logical arena in which to force 
confrontations over the segregation issue. In the spring of 1961 the 
Congress of Racial Equality, under the leadership of its new executive 
director, James Farmer, 33 decided to send “freedom riders” into the 
South. 34 The freedom rides (which were subsequently joined in by 
SCLC, SNCC, and the Nashville Student Movement) brought on 
some of the worst mob violence of the era. There were in all about 
a dozen different freedom rides involving about one thousand persons 
(Lomax, 144; Schlesinger, 936). With each outbreak of arrests and 
mob violence, the federal government was faced with the decision 
whether to intervene, for it was clear that the civil rights activists 
would not desist. James Farmer expressed the spirit of the freedom 
rides when he declared that “Jails are not a new experience for 
the Riders, but the Freedom Riders were definitely a new experience 
for Mississippi jails” (Zinn, 57). In fact many of the participants in 
the various freedom rides were already familiar with the jails of the 
South; they were veterans of the sit-ins and “jail-no-bail” protests. 


33 Farmer had been the prime mover in the formation of CORE in 1942, while Race 
Relations Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. 

34 CORE had organized two freedom rides through the Upper South in 1947, both of 
which are described in Freedom Ride by James Peck. In this as in other ways CORE 
anticipated the direct action tactics of the southern phase of the civil rights movement. 
It had employed sit-ins and other tactics to force desegregation for two decades before 
the sit-ins and freedom rides of the early 1960s. 




230 


Poor People's Movements 

The southern jails had become the crucible in which the cadres of 
civil disobedience were being formed. 

The Kennedy Administration was continually drawn into the con¬ 
flict created by the clashing forces throughout the South. Its actions, 
in turn, added fuel to the fire, for when the federal government sup¬ 
ported the goals of the movement—either symbolically or through 
various executive actions—the participants in the movement gained 
encouragement, however frustrated they may have also felt with 
delays and compromises in the federal government's responses. For 
example, when the president was asked about the freedom rides 
during a press conference, he replied: “The Attorney General 
has made it clear that we believe that everyone who travels, for what¬ 
ever reason they travel (sic), should enjoy the full constitutional 
protection given to them by the law and the Constitution'' (Schles- 
inger, 936). Moreover the attorney general intervened to protect 
the freedom riders in Montgomery, for the events there were too 
violent to be ignored: 

The violence became so intense and open that Attorney General 
Robert Kennedy sent 400 U. S. marshals to Montgomery to main¬ 
tain order. On the evening of May 21, Dr. King held a mass meeting 
in Montgomery’s First Baptist Church. As the mass meeting pro¬ 
ceeded, a mob of white segregationists gathered outside the church. 
Standing between the 1,000 Negroes in the church and the mob 
was a squad of U.S. marshals and a few Montgomery city police¬ 
men. Someone in the mob shouted, “We want to integrate, too. 
Let us at them.’’ Then a barrage of bottles and bricks was rained 
on the church. The marshals countered with tear gas. A battle raged 
for most of the night. 

Inside the church the Negroes linked arms and sang the marching 
song of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” 

We are not afraid . . . We are not afraid . . . We are not afraid 
today . . . Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe . . . We shall over¬ 
come someday (Bleiweiss, 84-85). 

Within a matter of months the federal courts and the ICC ordered 
the desegregation of all terminal facilities for both interstate and 
intrastate passengers. 



231 


The Civil Rights Movement 


PRESIDENTIAL EFFORTS TO CHANNEL 
THE BLACK MOVEMENT 

In the wake of the student sit-ins and the freedom rides, the Kennedy 
Administration attempted to divert the civil rights forces from tactics 
of confrontation to the building of a black electoral presence in the 
South. The Kennedy Administration’s posture on these matters is 
not difficult to understand. Tactics of confrontation, together with 
the police and mob violence which they provoked, were polarizing 
national sentiments. The excesses of southern police violence and 
of white mob violence generated one excruciating political dilemma 
after another for the Kennedy Administration as to whether it 
should intervene to protect civil rights demonstrators and uphold 
the law. Each intervention, or the lack of it, angered one or the 
other major constituency in the civil rights struggle, thus worsen¬ 
ing the electoral lesion in the Democratic Party. 

Consequently the Kennedy Administration moved to reduce the 
level of conflict by attempting to divert civil rights activists away 
from confrontations over desegregation of schools, waiting rooms, 
rest rooms, parks, and pools which so inflamed white southerners. 
They suggested instead that activists concentrate on voter registra¬ 
tion for the reason, Schlesinger says, that “Negro voting did not 
incite social and sexual anxieties; and white southerners could not 
argue against suffrage for their Negro fellow citizens with quite the 
same moral fervor they applied to the mingling of the races in the 
schools. Concentration on the right to vote, in short, seemed the 
best available means of caijrying the mind of the white South” (935). 
(It was a view that failed, inexplicably, to take into account the deep 
vested interest of the existing stratum of white southern political 
leaders in the disenfranchisement of the black; nor did it take into 
account the stakes—declining but still important—of the black belt 
plantation leaders in the subordination of blacks.) 

At the same time, the extension of the franchise to blacks—as 
both Sorensen and Schlesinger make plain—was gradually coming 
to be seen by the Kennedy Administration as a way of regaining 
Democratic strength in the South. The southern blacks represented 
a huge untapped pool of potential Democratic voters; their numbers 
could offset southern white defections. It was a strategy that called 
for giving more emphasis to voting rights. Thus when 



232 


Poor People’s Movements 

the ban on poll taxes in Federal elections, which had been sought 
for twenty years . . . finally passed both houses, [it] was pushed by 
the President and Democratic National Committee in the state 
legislatures, and became the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the 
Constitution. The number of Negroes and less affluent whites en¬ 
abled to vote by that measure alone, the President believed, could 
make a difference in his 1964 re-election race in Texas and Virginia 
(Sorensen, 475). 


By the same token, when the president reviewed his attorney gen¬ 
eral’s report on two years of voting progress, he wrote, “Keep push¬ 
ing the cases” (Sorensen, 479). Schlesinger thought he saw in these 
events a parallel with the early years of the New Deal: “A genera¬ 
tion ago Roosevelt had absorbed the energy and hope of the labor 
revolution into the New Deal. [Likewise] Kennedy moved to in¬ 
corporate the Negro revolution into the Democratic coalition and 
thereby help it serve the future of American freedom” (977). The 
question of helping to serve the future of American freedom aside, 
there is little doubt that incorporating southern blacks into the New 
Deal coalition would help to serve the future of the Democratic 
Party. 

Consistent with this political strategy, the Kennedy Administration 
argued in its dealings with civil rights groups that the franchise 
was “the open-sesame of all other rights” (Navasky, 169; see also 
Sorensen, 478; Schlesinger, 935). Accordingly the proper role of 
the federal government was to litigate to enfranchise blacks, and 
the proper role of the civil rights movement was to register blacks 
to vote. In these dealings, however, the Kennedy Administration 
did more than try to persuade civil rights leaders of the wisdom 
of this approach. It also mobilized financial inducements in what 
Schlesinger calls “a behind-the-scenes effort” of such urgency as 
to be “reminiscent of the campaign to save the Bay of Pigs prison¬ 
ers” (935). In June 1961 “representatives of SNCC, SCLC, the Na¬ 
tional Student Association, and CORE met with the Attorney Gen¬ 
eral” at his invitation. “Kennedy asserted that in his opinion voter 
registration projects would be far, more constructive activity than 
freedom rides or other demonstrations. He assured the conferees 
that necessary funds would be available through private foundations, 
and that Justice Department personnel, including FBI teams, would 



233 


The Civil Rights Movement 

provide all possible aid and cooperation” (Meier and Rudwick, 
1973, 173; Zinn, 58). 35 

Within the civil rights movement these presidential channeling 
efforts caused both considerable dismay and considerable enthusiasm. 
“While many activists in CORE, SNCC and SCLC were suspicious 
of Kennedy's proposal, seeing it as a calculated attempt to divert them 
from direct action, others had already concluded that direct action 
was no panacea, and that voter registration would provide a neces¬ 
sary basis for further progress" (Meier and Rudwick, 1974, 172). 
Others, like King, felt that both approaches were essential: “We 
would agree with the importance of voting rights, but would pa¬ 
tiently seek to explain that Negroes did not want to neglect all other 
rights while one was selected for concentrated attention” (1963, 20). 

This issue nearly split SNCC apart. One faction, which stressed 
the importance of direct action, was convinced that the Kennedy 
Administration’s interest in voter registration was a disguised effort 
“to cool the militancy of the student movement," while the other 
faction was convinced that voter registration was the key to toppling 
the caste system in the South (Zinn, 59). A split was finally averted 
by insulating each program strategy in a separate division of the 
organization; one faction continued to pursue confrontation tactics 
(directed particularly at segregated public accommodations) and 
the other faction undertook voter registration drives. With all of 
the civil rights organizations responding in some measure to the 
lure of the ballot and with federal assurances of both funding and 
protection, a voter registration drive was inevitable. By early spring 
1962 

the Voter Education Project finally got underway. . . . Designed 

to last two and a half years, it cost $870,000, nearly all of which 


36 Meier and Rudwick also express the opinion that there was a direct relationship 
between these channeling efforts and the planning by the Kennedy Administration for 
the election of 1964: “Kennedy Administration officials had been impressed by the 
results of voter registration drives that they had encouraged in several northern black 
communities prior to the 1960 election; they perceived possibilities for creating an 
enlarged bloc of black voters in the South who would support Kennedy in 1964. It 
was in this milieu of heightened interest in voter registration, combined with the sense 
of crisis produced by the Freedom Rides that the idea of a foundation-financed voter- 
registration campaign developed’' (172-173). Matthews and Prothro make the same 
point: “As more southern Negroes vote in the future, they can be expected to swell the 
Democratic ranks ... a fact that has not escaped the attention of the Kennedy and 
Johnson administrations’ civil rights strategists” (391-392). 




234 


Poor People's Movements 

came from the Taconic and Field Foundations and the Stern Family 
Fund. With less than 25 percent of the southern blacks registered 
at VEP’s start, the drive was expected to achieve substantial change 
in time for the 1964 presidential election (Meier and Rudwick, 175). 

Although the Kennedy Administration succeeded in turning many 
in SNCC and in other civil rights organizations toward voter registra¬ 
tion, it did not, as it turned out, succeed in diverting them from the 
tactics of confrontation. No matter how orthodox their beliefs about 
the electoral system, the cadres who went out to register the black 
poor were nevertheless animated by the elan of the sit-ins and free¬ 
dom rides, by the tactics of confrontation. Moreover, given their 
objective of building power through the ballot, it was natural enough 
that they would choose counties in the heart of the black belt where 
potential black electoral majorities existed. But for just that reason 
they confronted the most embittered and threatened local political 
leaders, backed by police agencies whose capacity for unrestrained 
terror was unique in the nation. Moreover, these leaders brought 
every available form of economic pressure to bear on the black 
poor to prevent voter registration, including firings, evictions, and 
cutting off federal food supplies: 

As the stream of voting applicants in Greenwood [Mississippi] in¬ 
creased (though in SNCC’s first six months there, only five Negroes 
were actually declared by the registrar to have passed the test), the 
economic screws were tightened on the Negro community. Winters 
were always lean in the farming towns of Mississippi, and people 
depended on surplus food supplied by the Government to keep 
them going. In October, 1962, the Board of Supervisors of Leflore 
County stopped distributing surplus food, cutting off 22,000 people 
—mostly Negro—who depended on it (Zinn, 86). 

Voter registration activists thus entered some southern rural counties 
where, at the close of a year’s work, they could count innumerable 
arrests and beatings, and even some killings, but they could count 
no registered black voters. 

Confronted with this miscalculation the administration reneged on 
its promises of federal protection for the voter rights activists. The 
administration hoped to gain votes in the South, to be sure, but not 
at the price of worsening the southern white rebellion (especially 
in Congress) against the national Democratic Party. Given this choice 



235 The Civil Rights Movement 

the civil rights activists were sacrificed. Despite extensive documenta¬ 
tion of voter rights violations and extensive documentation of vio¬ 
lence inflicted upon civil rights activists, the Kennedy Administra¬ 
tion failed time and again to intervene. 

To justify its continuing political concern with conciliating the 
South, the Kennedy Administration argued that the federal govern¬ 
ment lacked the authority to act against southern governors, law 
enforcement officials, and other political leaders (Navasky, 221). In 
the end even the Kennedy Administration’s strategy of litigation 
foundered, for federal judges in the South (and not least of all 
Kennedy’s own appointees) were often among the most intransigent: 

The demonstrable damage these judges inflicted was threefold. First, 
they cruelly postponed justice—thus further delaying the enforce¬ 
ment of Constitutional rights already one hundred years overdue. 
Second, they dealt a severe blow to the civil rights movement, which 
became increasingly frustrated, fragmentized and radicalized as a 
direct result of the open injustice exhibited by the official, federal 
justice-dispensing instrument. . . . Third, through deceit, delay 
and direct, extralegal challenges to federal authority, they under¬ 
mined the Justice Department’s fundamental strategy of litigate- 
rather-than-legislate (Navasky, 247-248). 

As a result the white massive resistance movement in the South con¬ 
tinued to be given wide latitude to fend off the civil rights challenge. 

As it turned out the civil rights movement had also miscalculated. 
Voter registration activities were widely dispersed and many were 
conducted in relatively isolated rural areas by activists working in 
twos and threes. The resulting confrontations were many, but on 
a small scale, and usually unpublicized. They could thus be ignored 
by the White House. In this unexpected way the channeling efforts 
of the Kennedy Administration had succeeded. 

It remained, then, for the civil rights movement to continue to 
provoke mass civil disorder, for it was only when mass civil disorder 
erupted in its most extreme forms (and sometimes not even then) 
that the federal government did what it claimed it did not have the 
authority to do. “We put on pressure and create a crisis,” James 
Farmer said, “and then they react.” One important crisis occurred 
in Albany, Georgia, although it, too, failed to provoke federal 
intervention. 



Poor People’s Movements 


236 


DEFIANCE ESCALATES 

The precipitating incident in Albany was an order issued by the 
Interstate Commerce Commission. Responding to the turbulence 
caused by the freedom rides, Robert Kennedy petitioned the ICC to 
ban segregated terminal facilities in interstate travel. The ICC issued 
the necessary order on September 22, 1961, to become effective on 
November 1. But many southern communities ignored the order or 
desegregated interstate passenger facilities and left intrastate facilities 
segregated as before. The same month that the ICC order was to 
become effective SNCC organizers in Albany, who had developed 
wide-ranging connections in the black community, boarded a bus 
in Atlanta bound for Albany where they intended to test the ban 
on desegregated terminal facilities and test the readiness of the black 
community for direct action. 36 The anticipated arrests did in fact 
occur. Several additional tests followed, with the Department of 
Justice being notified in each case. But there was no response from 
Washington. On December 10, SNCC members again traveled by 
train toward Albany and hundreds of blacks gathered to meet them. 
Eight out of nine riders were quickly arrested and that was enough 
to galvanize the community. Over the next few days mass marches 
were staged by hundreds of blacks to protest the arrests of the preced¬ 
ing weeks. “By December 15, nearly five hundred people were in 
jail” (David Lewis, 1970, 146). 

When negotiations with city officials failed, the leaders of the 
Albany Movement (a confederation of black organizations which 
had formed as part of the civil rights upheaval) called upon SCLC 
for help. Two days later mass marches, led by King, began again and 
were met by large contingents of police. Upwards of one thousand 
demonstrators were subsequently arrested and jailed, including King, 
who refused bond. He then appealed for clergymen throughout the 
country to come and join in a vigil while he remained jailed over 
the Christmas period. Through what was apparently a misunder¬ 
standing, however, King accepted release a few days later, only to 
learn that the concessions from local political and business leaders 


36 Accounts of the events in Albany during 1961-1962 are available in some detail. See, 
for example, Zinn; Watters; Anthony Lewis (1964), and David Lewis (1970). 




237 


The Civil Rights Movement 

which he thought had been won had not in fact been granted. 
Despite the bitterness of this defeat and the embarrassment in the 
national press which the incident created, the struggle in Albany 
continued through the spring and summer of 1962. The campaign 
included all forms of direct action, from boycotts to sit-ins to marches 
and mass demonstrations. During one week in August 1962, 1,000 
demonstrators were imprisoned. Many were injured by the police; 
still others suffered economic reprisals of various kinds. But it was 
all to no avail, at least in the sense that mass demonstrations and 
mass arrests yielded no concessions from city officials. “Negroes won 
nothing in Albany. ... It was not until the Civil Rights Bill of 
1964 that even token integration came to Albany, Georgia” (Blei- 
weiss, 86). 

Two explanations of that failure have been advanced. On the 
one hand, “There is universal agreement among the Movement 
leaders that they were mistaken in simultaneously attacking all the 
manifestations of segregation in the city instead of concentrating on 
one or two—employment, bus segregation, an integrated police 
force, or free access to places of entertainment” (David Lewis 1970, 
169). On the other hand, some observers and participants felt that 
the campaign had been haphazardly managed owing in part to inter¬ 
necine factional strife. King himself seemed to agree with both of 
these explanations, for he said at the close of the campaign that the 
movement had “jumped too far, too soon, and with improper 
preparation” (Bleiweiss, 86). 

But whatever the reasons that the Albany Movement won nothing 
from the local white leadership, there is another vantage point from 
which that experience was an extraordinary success. Victories or not, 
Albany had shown that large masses of southern blacks could be 
mobilized for marches and demonstrations; Albany “represented a 
permanent turn from the lunch counter and the bus terminal to the 
streets, from hit-and-run attacks by students and professional civil 
rights activists to populist rebellion by lower-class Negroes . . . [and 
thus became] . . . the prototype for demonstrations that later rocked 
Birmingham and dozens of other cities throughout the nation” (Zinn, 
123). 

The tactics also differed significantly from those employed in 
Montgomery and in similar boycotts elsewhere in the South in the 
late 1950s. Boycotts required of people that they avoid transporta¬ 
tion facilities, or avoid various white businesses. There were surely 



238 


Poor People’s Movements 

inconveniences and some hardships as a result; moreover, people also 
had to be prepared for retaliatory measures—such as threats to jobs 
—which such boycotts provoked. But they did not generally have 
to be prepared to suffer the brutality inflicted by the police and the 
possibility of injury or even death. Albany proved that the move¬ 
ment could arouse masses of blacks to confront the police and to 
fill the jails of the South and that was its chief significance, or so 
it seems to us. 

The campaign in Albany also demonstrated that southern whites 
were far more recalcitrant than most had imagined and that white 
moderates—if they existed at all—had been effectively muzzled by 
the rising tide of extremist sentiment and coercion. White extremism 
continued unabated. 

When sufficiently provoked by that extremism, the Kennedy 
Administration did intervene. In this period some of the most cele¬ 
brated actions taken by the Kennedy Administration were in the 
field of higher education and they were taken because of the same 
kind of mob violence which had forced Eisenhower’s hand in Little 
Rock. Thus in September 1962, when Governor Ross Barnett refused 
to allow James Meredith to enroll at the University of Mississippi, 
in defiance of the Supreme Court decision, Kennedy sent in federal 
marshals and federalized the Mississippi National Guard, largely to 
maintain order: 

In the battle-scarred history of the Negro revolution since the 1954 
Supreme Court decision, Oxford was a nightmare. For two horrible 
days—Sunday, September 30 and Monday, October 1, 1962—the 
battle raged, with upward of 2,500 frenzied whites repeatedly charg¬ 
ing the Federal marshals, the federalized Mississippi National Guard 
and the Regular Army troops who protected the seething campus. 

. . . The campus trembled now to exploding tear-gas bombs and 
the screams of the whites: “Give us the Nigger!’’ In the holocaust 
two men, a French journalist and a local Oxford resident, fell dead 
and at least 375 were injured. But in the end, defiant Governor Ross 
Barnett yielded and James Meredith entered the university (Brink 
and Harris, 1964, 40). 

Similar action was taken by the Kennedy Administration when Gov¬ 
ernor Wallace, “standing in the schoolhouse door,” made the flam¬ 
boyant gesture of refusing to desegregate the University of Alabama. 
(It was Wallace who declared, “I draw the line in the dust and toss 
the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now. 



239 The Civil Rights Movement 

segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”) Such a flagrant chal¬ 
lenge to federal authority by a southern governor was not intended 
to be ignored, and it was not. 


The Winning of Political Rights 

In the years 1963 through 1965 the balance of electoral considera¬ 
tions shifted decisively to favor the granting of black rights in the 
South. In this period, as in no other, the civil rights movement proved 
its capacity to incite large numbers of southern blacks to join the 
struggle and their actions, in turn, aroused favorable public opinion 
throughout the country. 

The main elements in the changing political balance were these. 
First, the civil rights movement was contributing to the rising tide 
of anger in the ghettos, and that was an acute problem for the Ken¬ 
nedy Administration. With a presidential election less than two years 
away the potential instability of“ the black vote was a cause for 
concern. Indeed the potential instability of the ghettos themselves 
had become a cause for concern. Kennedy officials were fearful that 
‘‘the nonviolent resistance strategy . . . was not deeply rooted in 
Negro traditions and there were signs that it might give way to 
a more violent strategy uncontrolled by responsible leaders” (Soren¬ 
sen, 495). 

The events in the South also provoked broad support for civil 
rights demands among northern whites. Despite worsening conflict 
between blacks and working-class whites in the northern cities, the 
most insistent black demand was for political rights in the South and 
that was no threat to the northern white working class. The huge 
white middle class which had developed in the affluent post-World 
War II years gave its support more readily, for this class was largely 
insulated from blacks as a result of suburbanization and of its 
privileged occupational position. 

At the same time, resistance in much of the South was collapsing. 
This was especially the case in the states of the Outer South. In addi¬ 
tion to all of the forces which had weakened economic stakes in the 
caste system, the perpetuation of these arrangements was beginning 
to exact certain costs. Many southern communities, for example, 
wanted to attract northern industry, but northern industry shied away 



240 


Poor People’s Movements 

from locations in which white intransigence and racial turmoil were 
intense. Northern executives explained that their employees did not 
want to relocate in communities where the schools might be closed, 
or where continued civil disorder was likely. This message was not 
lost on many white communities. Consequently business leaders 
brought pressure on local political leaders to make concessions that 
would either prevent disorder or restore order. 

In Charlotte, as in Memphis and Dallas and Atlanta, and a dozen 
other communities throughout the South, the powerful white lead¬ 
ers recognized that the revolution on their streets was full of danger. 
They were afraid of losing money. They were afraid that Northern 
industry would not want to set up its regional offices in their towns. 
They could add up on paper the money they might lose from 
convention business. They may have had moments of sober reflec¬ 
tion on the moral issues at stake, but their actions didn’t show it. 

In the end, those among them who were fairly intelligent, and those 
who were not under pressures from tyrannical governors or legisla¬ 
tures, and those who had not been made afraid of vigilante groups, 
decided to seek settlements that would produce peace in the city 
and money in their pockets (Powledge, 117). 

This division among southern leaders—particularly between those 
of the inner and outer states of the South—went far toward weaken¬ 
ing the capacity of the South to ward off threats to its traditional 
social structure. 

The Deep South, in short, had become isolated from significant 
sources of support. Being isolated, it had become vulnerable. But 
still its political leaders could not give way to racial change without 
risking office. In a few years a new and more moderate leadership 
stratum would emerge; meanwhile the older leadership persisted in 
a futile strategy of resistance. This resistance was met with a mass 
black mobilization: the civil rights forces drew increasing numbers 
to demonstrations and inspired greater militancy and courage in the 
demonstrations. 


THE MASS BLACK MOBILIZATION 

Following the defeat in Albany, SCLC leaders turned to Birming¬ 
ham. In the campaign that followed blacks confronted the police and 
were arrested by the hundreds. However improved the coordination 



241 The Civil Rights Movement 

and focus of the Birmingham campaign may or may not have been 
compared to the campaign in Albany, it was the confrontation be¬ 
tween the people and the police that was its distinguishing feature 
and the source of its influence on the national government. 

From the perspective of SCLC leaders Birmingham was an ideal 
locale to draw the battle lines with the Kennedy Administration, for 
Birmingham was easily among the least racially advanced of major 
southern cities. The Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” 
Connor, had established himself as a bulwark of the southern racist 
creed. The city administration had responded to the civil rights chal¬ 
lenge by such actions as closing public parks and the city had experi¬ 
enced a virtual epidemic of bombings of black churches, an omen 
of the violence that would surely follow if Birmingham were made 
into a civil rights battlefield. For just these reasons the SCLC leader¬ 
ship believed that a campaign in Birmingham would provoke and 
expose southern racism and extremism as no other campaign had. 

The planning for Project “C” (confrontation) was extensive, much 
more so than in any previous campaign, with hundreds of volunteer 
cadres schooling masses of people in the philosophy and tactics of 
nonviolent offensives. 37 Targets for sit-ins, demonstrations, and selec¬ 
tive boycotts were picked from among the city’s businesses. Influential 
people in the North were briefed, particularly those in a position to 
provide funds for bail. 

Lunch counter sit-ins, selective boycotts, and other small-scale 
demonstrations began on Tuesday, April 2, 1963. The police, antici¬ 
pating an injunction, made peaceful arrests. By Friday thirty-five 
had been jailed. On Saturday forty-five more were arrested during a 
silent march on City Hall. The expected injunction was issued on 
Wednesday, April 10, and fifty volunteers were designated to demon¬ 
strate on Friday in defiance of it. All were arrested, including King, 
who was placed in solitary confinement. SCLC leaders decided “that 
one historic phone call deserved another,” and so on Sunday Coretta 
King telephoned the president (David Lewis, 1970, 186). The call 
was returned that evening by the attorney general who gave assur¬ 
ances that her husband was safe. By Monday bail money began to 
arrive and the White House was deluged with mail and telegrams 


37 The campaign in Birmingham has been described in such accounts as David Lewis 
(1970) and Zinn. The reactions of the federal government are described in Sorensen, 
Schlesinger, and Navasky. 




242 


Poor People’s Movements 

protesting the events in Birmingham. From prison, King issued his 
now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” addressed especially 
to southern clergymen who had attacked him, SCLC, and the direct 
action tactics of the movement. It was a document that provided 
moral and theological justification for nonviolent protest against 
unjust laws and practices and it went far toward galvanizing church¬ 
men and others in the North. 

On Thursday, May 2, the battle worsened as “959 of some 6,000 
children . . . ranging in age from six to sixteen, were arrested as 
they marched, singing, wave upon wave from Sixteenth Street Baptist 
Church into town. . . . More would have been taken away if the 
police had not run out of wagons” (David Lewis, 1970, 192). The 
next day police restraint, such as it was, broke. As 1,000 demonstra¬ 
tors were preparing to march, the police sealed off the exits of the 
church where they were assembling, with the result that only half 
got out, there to meet unleashed police dogs, flailing nightsticks, and 
jet-streams from high-pressure water hoses. Only a handful reached 
the intended target, City Hall. With television cameras everywhere, 
the hoped-for crisis was finally in the making. 

On Saturday, Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall arrived 
in Birmingham to restore calm, but both sides were unmovable. 
Marches continued for several days and were marked by police vio¬ 
lence; younger blacks abandoned song and prayer to throw rocks 
and bottles. More than 2,000 people had been imprisoned; the jails, 
both regular facilities and improvised ones, were filled. Still, several 
thousand people were ready to resume the marches. 

Officials in the Kennedy Administration, trying desperately to 
avoid open intervention with all of its attendant political ramifica¬ 
tions, unsuccessfully maneuvered behind the scenes to persuade and 
coerce civil rights activists and Birmingham’s political leaders to 
settle. They brought pressure directly to bear on local officials, and 
they buttressed it indirectly by inducing northern leaders in busi¬ 
ness, industry, religion, philanthropy, law, and other institutional 
areas to telephone their southern counterparts in Birmingham to 
urge them to intervene. 

The demonstrations on Monday, May 6, were again marked by 
police violence, and when marches resumed on Tuesday morning, 
high-pressure water hoses broke legs and caved in rib cages. By 
afternoon, while masses of demonstrators were scattered throughout 
the business district praying and singing before the deserted stores, 
younger participants began to throw rocks and bottles. The black 



243 


The Civil Rights Movement 

community was exhausting its capacity for nonviolent discipline. 
As rioting spread, business leaders called for a truce to which SCLC 
agreed. 

Outraged by these flanking maneuvers, Commissioner Connor 
called for and received 500 state troopers from Governor Wallace, 
and then arrested King. SCLC ordered immediate demonstrations, 
knowing that law enforcement officials were awaiting them. Little 
but unparalleled carnage could result. To avert it the attorney gen¬ 
eral called local officials to declare that the federal government had 
reached the limits of its tolerance, and to threaten decisive action if 
a settlement was not made. On May 10 an agreement was reached 
that provided for the desegregation of lunch counters, rest rooms, 
and drinking fountains, for less racist hiring and promotion prac¬ 
tices in local businesses, and for the immediate release of 3,000 im¬ 
prisoned demonstrators. 

And then the bombings began: first King’s brother’s house, fol¬ 
lowed by a motel where SCLC was headquartered. Although no 
deaths resulted, the black community seethed into tumult, leading 
to mob rioting on May 11. For five hours “the Negroes boiled into 
the streets, wielding knives, overturning cars, hurling rocks and bricks 
at anyone who moved, even other Negroes. One wounded Negro 
moaned: ‘They were insane’ ” (Brink and Harris, 1964, 44). 

Unable to temporize any longer, the president ordered in federal 
troops and brought Governor Wallace into line by threatening to 
federalize the Alabama National Guard. In public statements he 
praised the courage and restraint of the movement and gave assurance 
that the federal government would stand behind the terms of the 
agreement negotiated with Birmingham’s white officials. (A few 
days later the Birmingham Board of Education expelled 1,100 stu¬ 
dents for their role in the demonstrations, although the federal 
courts later reinstated them.) With these events, protests burst forth 
across the country: “During the week of May 18, the Department 
of Justice noted forty-three major and minor demonstrations, ten 
of them in northern cities” (Franklin, 631). 


THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ACTS 

The final victory of the Birmingham campaign came on June 11 
when President Kennedy, in a televised address to the nation, an- 



244 


Poor People’s Movements 

nounced that he was requesting the Congress to enact as expedi¬ 
tiously as possible a comprehensive civil rights bill. In February he 
had submitted a relatively weak bill and had done little to secure 
its passage. As James Farmer aptly said, “It is clear that . . . the 
President intended, to drop civil rights legislation from the agenda 
of urgent business in order to safeguard other parts of his legisla¬ 
tive program. But he had not reckoned on Birmingham” (40-41). 
By June, however, Kennedy admitted to civil rights leaders privately 
“that the demonstrations in the streets had brought results, they had 
made the executive branch act faster and were now forcing Congress 
to entertain legislation which a few weeks before would have had 
no chance” (Schlesinger, 970). Mass protest had forced federal action. 
It was a point the attorney general also conceded: “The Administra¬ 
tion’s Civil Rights Bill ... is designed to alleviate some of the 
principal causes of the serious and unsettling racial unrest now pre¬ 
vailing in many of the states” (Navasky, 205). 

In his nationally televised address, the president referred to the 
“rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety” and said, 
“It cannot be met by repressive police action. ... It cannot 
be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Con¬ 
gress. . . .” According to the results of a Newsweek poll, “Almost 
nothing that had happened to the Negroes in the last ten years 
heartened them quite so much as the President’s speech. . . . Finally 
and irrevocably the leader of their country had told the nation 
that their cause was right and just and should be fulfilled” (Brink 
and Harris, 1974, 46). 

Just hours after Kennedy spoke to the nation, Medgar Evers, 
secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, was shot in his driveway. His 
funeral in Jackson on June 15 turned into a riot. The New York 
Times reported: 

After the last of the four-block-long line of marchers had reached 
the funeral home . . . the younger Negroes apparently decided to 
make an attempt to demonstrate in the white business district. . . . 
Four motorcycle patrolmen let them through one intersection, but 
[they were met] with twenty officers as they approached the main 
thoroughfare. . . . [Now numbering approximately one thousand, 
they chanted] “We want the killer! We want the killer! We want 
equality! We want Freedom!” 

Officers using police dogs moved in. . . . One demonstrator after 
another was grabbed and hustled into waiting patrol wagons. . . . 
They began throwing rocks, bottles and other missiles at the police. 



245 The Civil Rights Movement 

. . . The crowd screamed. . . . The growling and barking of the 
police dogs, the crash of the bottles on the pavement and the cursing 
of the policemen added to the uproar. ... 

[When it was over] the mood of the Negroes was still one of 
bitterness and anger. “The only way to stop evil here is to have 
a revolution," muttered a young man in a doorway. “Somebody 
have to die" (Anthony Lewis, 1964, 227-228). 

Throughout the country, demonstrations multiplied: “In a three- 
month period during the summer of 1963, the U. S. Justice Depart¬ 
ment counted 1,412 separate demonstrations. The newspaper pic¬ 
tures showing the limp bodies of Negroes being carried to police 
wagons became a great tapestry of the times. Over the land echoed 
the Negro hymn, ‘We Shall Overcome’ ” (Brink and Harris, 1964, 46). 

Despite Kennedy’s announcement that he would press Congress for 
a greatly strengthened civil rights program, there was every reason 
to believe it would be filibustered into oblivion. Prodded by the 
restless mood of the black community, civil rights leaders had already 
decided that a demonstration of national support for civil rights 
legislation was both possible and necessary. Earlier, in November 
1962, A. Philip Randolph had proposed a March on Washington for 
Jobs and Freedom. Many in the northern civil rights community at 
first greeted the proposal with something less than enthusiasm; the 
National Urban League simply opposed it. In part black leaders 
were stalemated by chronic competition for leadership; some were 
also edgy about demonstrations, fearing that their access to high gov¬ 
ernment officials and private elites would be impaired. By the late 
spring of 1963, however, their mood had changed in response to 
the changing mood in the black community together with the vic¬ 
tory in Birmingham and evidence that the Kennedy Administra¬ 
tion was finally prepared to act more decisively in the field of civil 
rights. A planning conference was set for early July and support 
came from many quarters. The president, of course, opposed the 
march, fearing the repercussions in Congress if the march turned 
violent or if the turnout was disappointing. On the other hand, 
“Negroes had discovered that demonstrations had accomplished what 
other measures had not" (Franklin, 630). The heads of some major 
unions pledged support and the leaders of some of the largest 
northern religious denominations made commitments to what was 
to be the largest demonstration in the history of the movement and 
the largest demonstration of any kind staged in Washington up to 
that time. When August 23 dawned, the streets of Washington rapidly 



246 


Poor People’s Movements 

filled; by afternoon more than 250,000 had assembled to demand the 
passage of civil rights legislation as well as economic measures to 
ease the poverty of blacks. 

On September 15, just three weeks following the march, a church 
in Birmingham was bombed, killing four little girls. It was an act 
of southern terror that resounded throughout the world and was 
denounced by the president the following day on national televi¬ 
sion. Just two months later, Kennedy was assassinated. 

Lyndon Johnson had little choice but to commit his administra¬ 
tion to the cause of civil rights. On November 27, 1963, he told 
Congress: “We have talked long enough in this country about equal 
rights. It is time now to write the next chapter—and to write it 
in the book of law.” The main problem was to secure the votes for 
cloture in the Senate, for a filibuster (which lasted eighty-three days) 
immobilized Congress. Northern Republicans again made the dif¬ 
ference. The Senate Minority Leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, 
rose on the Senate floor to proclaim: “This is an idea whose time 
has come. It will not be stayed. It will not be denied.” As in 1957 
and in 1960, northern Republicans responded to the masses of 
aroused blacks and whites in the North. When cloture was finally 
invoked and the bill came to a vote, 27 of 31 Republican Senators 
voted affirmatively and the president signed the Civil Rights Act 
of 1964 on July 2. 

In the fall Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory over Gold- 
water in an election that revealed how completely isolated the Deep 
South had become. Johnson received 61 percent of the popular vote. 
Aside from Arizona his losses were limited to the five states of the 
Deep South where the most stubborn and virulent resistance to black 
voting rights persisted. In the northern urban ghettos, black Demo¬ 
cratic majorities ran as high as 95 percent. “Behind the statistics was 
a revolution in American politics. The first Southern President since 
the Civil War captured 90 percent of the Negro vote and lost the 
Deep South by large margins” (Evans and Novak, 481). In the eleven 
states of the Old Confederacy, where the number of black registered 
voters had increased from 1.4 million in 1962 to 2.2 million in 
1964, the black vote was beginning to play a role in Democratic 
fortunes: “Of the six southern states carried by the Democratic Party, 
four (Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia) clearly would 
have gone Republican had it not been for the Negro vote. Only in 
President Johnson’s home state of Texas among the eleven states 



247 The Civil Rights Movement 

of the South did the Democratic Party clearly receive the majority 
of white votes.” 38 There was, in short, no longer any reason to suffer 
the intransigence of the Deep South. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ostensibly guaranteed blacks the 
right to vote and ostensibly signified the federal government’s resolve 
to enforce that right. Even before the act was passed, however, there 
was skepticism among civil rights groups that voting officials in the 
South would comply with the law and that in the absence of compli¬ 
ance the federal government would intervene forcefully. CORE and 
SNCC’s voter registration drives had already provided substantial 
basis for that skepticism. Moreover, the Mississippi Freedom Demo¬ 
cratic Party which was formed in late 1963 to challenge the regular 
Mississippi Democratic organization had met with no success; during 
the spring of 1964 blacks were barred from the primaries, denied 
access to regular party caucuses, and otherwise prevented from partici¬ 
pating in regular party functions. 39 Consequently, direct action cam¬ 
paigns were planned in the spring to force the voting rights issue 
despite the imminent passage of the civil rights act. 

Under an umbrella organization called the Council of Confedera¬ 
ted Organizations (which had been operating voter negotiation cam¬ 
paigns) SNCC, CORE, and the Mississippi branch of the NAACP 
prepared hundreds of northern white students to help mobilize blacks 
for marches on the offices of voting registrars where local law en¬ 
forcement officials could be expected to press them back. Even before 
most of the students reached the field, three disappeared, to be found 
murdered and buried beneath an earthen dam two months later. 40 
The bodies of two murdered blacks were also found floating in 
the Mississippi River. Between June and October twenty-four black 
churches were bombed in Mississippi alone. 


38 Southern Regional Council, Press Release, November 15, 1964. 

39 And when the delegates from this party mounted a challenge to the seating of the 
regular Mississippi delegates at the Democratic convention in the summer, they were 
rebuffed by national party leaders for the obvious reason that national party leaders 
did not want to encourage black splinter parties in the South. The Democratic state 
parties in the South had to be reorganized and strengthened; incorporating blacks into 
those parties was the key to achieving that objective because blacks could be expected 
to be loyal to the national party. 

4 <> The slain young people were Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both whites 
from New York, and James Chaney, a black from Meridian, Mississippi. These highly 
publicized deaths, as well as earlier ones, helped greatly to build pressure for the civil 
rights acts of 1964 and 1965. 




248 


Poor People’s Movements 

Simultaneously with the killings and bombings in the South, the 
northern ghettos erupted in rioting. Rioting broke out in Cambridge, 
Maryland, in June, just before the signing of the Civil Rights Act 
of 1964. In mid-July riots erupted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant; 
then as the summer wore on the rioting spread to Rochester, Jersey 
City, Paterson, Elizabeth, a suburb of Chicago, and Philadelphia. 
It was the beginning of a series of riot-torn summers unlike any 
period in the nation’s history. The black masses joined the protest 
in the only way they could, given their institutional circumstances. 
As King aptly said, “A riot is the language of the unheard” (Killian, 
109). In some part, rioting was probably precipitated by civil rights 
demonstrations in the North, for activists had also brought the strug¬ 
gle to the northern cities. 41 

The southern voter registration drive thus gave continued evidence 
of southern intransigence, even while black protest was spreading 
to the northern ghettos. Consequently, a solution which had been 
considered and rejected by presidents and Congresses for a decade 
—the use of federal voting registrars—seemed the only means by 
which the right to vote could be ensured. But the solution required 
new legislation. To generate the necessary pressure on the president 
and the Congress, civil rights leaders decided to stage new demon¬ 
strations on the order of Albany and Birmingham. 

The target chosen was Selma, Alabama, where SNCC voter regis¬ 
tration activities had already provoked white violence, much of it 
by the police under the command of Sheriff James Clark. The cam¬ 
paign began in early January, 1965, with a succession of marches 
to the courthouse. As the weeks passed the numbers joining the 
demonstrations increased and so did the numbers jailed. On February 
1, King led a demonstration which resulted in more than 700 arrests; 
on February 2 some 550 more demonstrators were imprisoned: 


Franklin describes a number of these demonstrations: “There were about as many 
demonstrations in the North and West as in the South. The emphasis was on increased 
job opportunities and an end to de facto segregation in housing and education. In New 
York and Philadelphia demonstrators sought to block tax-supported construction of 
schools in all-negro neighborhoods. They staged sit-ins in the offices of Mayor Robert 
Wagner of New York City and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. In Boston, 
Chicago, New York, and Englewood, New Jersey, they sat in at schools or staged school 
strikes to protest racial imbalances. In Los Angeles and San Francisco crowds of more 
than 20,000 held rallies to protest the slaying of Medgar Evers and of William Moore, 
a Baltimore postal employee who was shot from ambush while making a one-man 
freedom march to Mississippi” (631). 




249 


The Civil Rights Movement 

“[T]he great majority, as the day before, were school children. 
Defiantly, they sang ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Jim Clark Turn Me Around’ ” 
(David Lewis, 1970, 268). During the first four days of February 
more than 3,000 demonstrators were arrested. “Jim Clark is another 
Bull Connor,” an SCLC staff member said. ,“We should put him 
on the staff” (Bleiweiss, 125). On February 4 a federal court banned 
literacy tests and other technical devices by which voter applicants 
were rejected, thus adding one more declaration of legitimacy for 
the voting rights cause. But securing compliance by southern voter 
registrars was another matter. 

On February 9 King met with Vice-President Humphrey and 
Attorney General-designate Nicholas Katzenbach in Washington, 
D.C., and ‘‘was given firm assurance that a strong voting act would 
be sent to Congress ‘in the near future’ ” (David Lewis, 1970, 269). 
The demonstrations in Selma continued. Congressmen and other 
dignitaries came to see at firsthand the denial of voting rights; 
some joined in demonstrations. In a neighboring county 400 blacks 
marched on February 18 to protest the jailing of a civil rights 
activist, and one of them—a boy named Jimmie Lee Jackson—was 
shot in the stomach. He died a week later, whereupon King called 
for a massive march from Selma to Montgomery. 

Governor Wallace issued a statement prohibiting the march; the 
attorney general of the United States pleaded with the leaders of 
SCLC to cancel it. On Sunday, March 7, 500 marchers set out for 
Montgomery. At the Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, they 
confronted “a blue line of Alabama’s troopers”: 

First there was gas, then the posse on horseback galloped into the 
swarm of fleeing blacks with cattle prods and clubs flailing mania¬ 
cally. The marchers were driven back across the bridge and into 
their houses and those of friends who dared to open their doors to 
shelter them. ... At one point, a number of blacks retaliated, hurl¬ 
ing rocks and bricks at the police, even forcing Clark and his men 
momentarily to retreat. But the combat was unequal. While the 
white spectators whooped approval of the rout and gave the pierc¬ 
ing rebel yell, Sheriff Clark bellowed, “Get those God damn nig¬ 
gers!” Protected by masks, the police and troopers hurled tear-gas 
cannisters into the panic-stricken mob. ... [A] high school student 
recalls that “the gas was so thick that you could almost reach up 
and grab it. ...” A Southern newspaperman saw Clark repeatedly 
charging the demonstrators who had retreated to the church, even 



250 


Poor People’s Movements 

though he was bloodied by a rock. With their anger rising, and 
feeling more secure in this section of town, many of the marchers 
were becoming belligerent, seizing whatever objects could be made 
to serve as weapons (David Lewis, 1970, 274-275). 

A groundswell of northern support followed these events, proba¬ 
bly larger than in any earlier period. Demonstrations were organized 
in one city after another. Northern dignitaries—and if not they, 
then their wives and sons and daughters—converged on Selma by 
the hundreds. Their names read like a Who's Who in the North. 
With intensive negotiations being pursued by members of the na¬ 
tional administration, the Alabama governor’s office, the federal 
court, the police officials and political leaders of Selma, and the civil 
rights forces, a compromise was apparently reached that would allow 
the marchers to proceed once again to the bridge, whereupon they 
were to turn back. Just who had been a party to the arrangement 
is to this day unclear and there are conflicting accounts. In any 
event, many in the throng of 1,500 on Tuesday, March 9, believed 
they were going straight through to Montgomery and King ap¬ 
parently did nothing to dispel that belief. At the bridge, beyond 
which the police were massed, he called for the march to continue, 
only seconds later to reverse himself, much to the dismay and anger 
of younger activists, especially in SNCC and CORE. That same night, 
three white northern clergymen were attacked on a Selma street by 
a white gang; one, Reverend James Reeb, died of his injuries on 
Thursday. 

With the country in an uproar, Wallace asked for a meeting with 
the president. On Saturday, March 13, he assured the president that 
the state of Alabama could manage the disorder without the inter¬ 
vention of federal troops. For the moment Johnson accepted those 
assurances. On Monday, appearing before an extraordinary evening 
session of Congress, Johnson called for the passage of a voting rights 
act: 

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes 
but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy 
of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome. 

The president’s speech was interrupted by several standing ovations 
and more than thirty intervals of applause, an unmistakable sign 
that congressional approval of a voting rights act would quickly result. 
On Thursday, March 18, Governor Wallace tried to shift the onus 



251 The Civil Rights Movement 

of dealing with the conflict to the White House by wiring that he 
could not protect the Selma marchers and requesting “sufficiently 
adequate federal civil authorities”: 

That was all Johnson needed. He set the stage with a statement 
deploring the need for federal intervention. “It is not a welcome 
duty for the federal government to ever assume a state government’s 
own responsibility for assuring the protection of citizens in the 
exercise of their constitutional rights,” said Johnson. He immedi¬ 
ately federalized the Alabama National Guard and 1,862 guards¬ 
men, as well as regular soldiers and federal marshals were ordered 
to guard the route of march from Selma to Montgomery. Johnson 
was delighted that Wallace’s blunder had enabled him to inter¬ 
vene, thereby satisfying civil rights protestors, and at the same time 
placed the responsibility squarely on Wallace, the champion of the 
bitter-end segregationists (Evans and Novak, 495). 

On March 21, the march began. Some 8,000 people, their ranks 
sprinkled with the powerful and prestigious, walked singing to the 
Pettus Bridge, where a smaller band continued on to Montgomery. 
“It was a miniature March on Washington” (David Lewis, 1970, 
290). When the marchers reached y the outskirts of Montgomery five 
days later, they were joined by 30,000 sympathizers in a triumphal 
march to George Wallace’s capitol building. That night Viola Liuzzo, 
a housewife from Detroit who had participated in the march, 
was shot to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan as she drove 
back to Selma. 

Beginning in April, as Congress deliberated on the president’s call 
for a voting rights act, intensified voter registration drives were staged 
in some 120 counties from Virginia to Louisiana where few blacks 
had been permitted to register. Considerable violence followed, 
dramatizing the need for the pending legislative remedy. Congress 
acted with extraordinary dispatch: the bill that had been introduced 
on March 17 was signed into law by the president on August 6. 
Every Republican Senator except J. Strom Thurmond of South 
Carolina voted affirmatively. Its main provision authorized the 
attorney general to place federal voting registrars in counties where 
it was determined that blacks were being denied the vote, the cri¬ 
teria being that a state or county “maintained a test or device as a 
prerequisite to registration or voting as of November 1, 1964, and 
had a total voting age population of which less than 50 percent were 
registered or actually voted in the 1964 Presidential election.” The 



252 


Poor People’s Movements 

states covered by this act included Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Loui¬ 
siana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and approximately 
twenty-six counties in North Carolina. 

With this legislation, national Democratic leaders finally dis¬ 
mantled the feudal apparatus of the post-Reconstruction era. By the 
time they acted, there were specific political advantages in doing so. 
Not only did civil rights concessions cement existing black voters to 
the Democratic Party, but the provisions extending the franchise to 
five million potential black voters in the South (over two million had 
been registered by the election of 1964) created a substantial bloc 
whose allegiance to the Democratic Party could also be counted on. 
That bloc, in turn, would help to offset permanent defections among 
the more racially intransigent southern whites in the Deep South, 
and to offset the trend toward Republicanism in the industrializing 
states of the Outer South as well. The basis was thus laid for rebuild¬ 
ing southern Democratic majorities by combining white moderates, 
many poor whites who would vote their economic interests over their 
prejudices, and newly enfranchised blacks. By finally endorsing and 
pressing hard for civil rights measures, in other words, national 
Democratic* leaders promoted the means to heal the fissures in 
their party. That they were free to do so is a measure of the dimin¬ 
ished importance which caste arrangements had come to have, first 
in the national economy, and then in the southern economy. 

The civil rights movement was not, then, the fundamental cause 
of this political transformation; the fundamental cause was economic 
change, and the political forces set in motion by economic change. 
Still, it took a long, arduous, and courageous struggle to force the 
political transformation which economic conditions had made ready. 


From Disruption to Organization 

With this transformation under way, the coalition of groups com¬ 
posing the southern civil rights movement began to fragment. In 
most accounts of the period the fragmenting is attributed to divisions 
within the movement, especially to the growing frustration and mili¬ 
tancy of the younger members in SNCC and CORE. A precipitating 
incident that is widely pointed to occurred on June 6, 1966, when 
James Meredith, while staging a one-man march through the Deep 
South, was wounded by a sniper on a road just inside the Mississippi 



253 The Civil Rights Movement 

state line. A small number of leading civil rights leaders then con¬ 
verged on the spot to complete the march, during which the younger 
militants (especially from SNCC) denounced nonviolence and racial 
cooperation and raised their fists for '‘Black Power. ,, For them, 
there had been one bullet too many and one federal betrayal too 
many. 

Divisiveness is endemic in movements and it always has a weaken¬ 
ing effect. But as an explanation of the demise of the black move¬ 
ment, we find it less than satisfactory. The disintegration of the 
movement was inevitable given the integrative impact of the very 
concessions won. If anything, the “black power” ideology aided in 
that transformation by providing a justification for the leadership 
stratum (and a growing black middle class more generally) to move 
aggressively to take advantage of these new opportunities. Despite the 
initial identification of the concept with nationalistic “extremism” 
and political “radicalism,” it came quickly to have a much more 
moderate and conventional meaning for most movement participants, 
as expressed by Carmichael and Hamilton: “The concept of black 
power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter 
the open society, it must first close ranks . . . solidarity is necessary 
before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position 
of strength in a pluralistic society” (44; their emphasis). Defined 
this way the concept was especially suited to the ideological needs of 
a black leadership stratum seeking to exploit the new possibilities 
for electoral and bureaucratic influence. 

Of the various concessions granted the movement none had a 
greater integrative effect than the right to vote, for activists were 
rapidly channeled into traditional electoral politics. The extension 
of the franchise and the guarantees of federal enforcement of the 
right to vote held out the promise that blacks could finally make 
substantial progress toward full equality through regular electoral 
processes. As a result protest lost legitimacy, undermined by the force 
of American electoral beliefs and traditions. The turn from protest 
was also promoted by northern liberals who defined the intelligent 
use of the vote as the true salvation of blacks and who (acting through 
private foundations, religious institutions, and the Democratic Party) 
provided the funds to further voter registration and related electoral 
efforts. Furthermore, for the leadership stratum, the incentives of 
public office were compelling, leading them to turn away from 
protest, and even to denounce it. An incident associated with the 
rise of the “black power” controversy illustrates the point. After civil 



254 


Poor People’s Movements 

rights leaders had converged on Mississippi to complete the “Mere¬ 
dith March," Charles Evers, director of the Mississippi NAACP, 
strongly objected that he did not “see how walking up and down 
a hot highway helps; I’m for walking house to house and fence to 
fence to get Negroes registered” (David Lewis, 1970, 321). The march 
leaders agreed and the marchers emphasized voter registration in 
various towns along the way. Subsequently Evers was elected mayor 
of Fayette, Mississippi. 

The point is that even as the controversy over "black power” broke 
out, resistance in the South to political modernization had finally 
collapsed. On July 6, 1967—just two years after the signing of the 
Voting Rights Act—the Department of Justice reported that more 
than 50 percent of all eligible black voters were registered in the 
five states of the Deep South. By every measure the process of elec¬ 
toral change in the South accelerated even as factionalism in the black 
movement worsened. In 1964 three southern states—Tennessee, 
Georgia, and North Carolina—numbered blacks among their na¬ 
tional Democratic convention delegates; in 1968 every southern state 
did so. With blacks voting in enlarging numbers, southern Demo¬ 
cratic governors of moderate persuasion on the race question began 
to be elected; Republican governors tended to be similarly moderate. 
Upwards of 900 blacks had been elected to office in the South by 
1972. And with some 3.5 million blacks registered throughout the 
South by the election of 1976, the black vote turned out to be the 
decisive factor in the election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency, 
for Carter won in the South (he could not have won without the 
South) despite the fact that Ford took 55 percent of the southern 
white vote. The reorganization of the southern wing of the Demo¬ 
cratic Party had succeeded. In virtually no time at all the movement 
had been incorporated into the electoral system, its leaders running 
for office throughout the South and its constituencies enjoined to 
devote their energies to making these bids for office a success in 
the name of "black power.” 

The socioeconomic programs of the Kennedy-Johnson years also 
helped to absorb and divert the civil rights movement. More will be 
said about these programs in the next chapter. For now it need 
simply be noted that the Kennedy Administration attempted to ward 
off pressures for civil rights legislation by stressing the need for socio¬ 
economic legislation to deal with the poverty of blacks. The "Great 
Society” programs were the result, notably the antipoverty pro¬ 
gram, and large numbers of civil rights activists took the new fed- 



255 


The Civil Rights Movement 

erally financed jobs that became available, presumably as a way of 
wielding black power. In their account of CORE’S demise, for 
example, Meier and Rudwick take particular pains to show how 
the antipoverty program diverted activists from direct action and 
undermined the fragile cohesion of existing CORE chapters: 

Leaders who accepted the well-paying positions with CAP programs 
found it difficult to maintain active connections with their local 
affiliates, and since they were generally the most experienced chapter 
members, the loss was substantial. . . . People on [CORE’S National 
Action Commmittee] even began to complain that the anti-poverty 
program “has been used to buy off militant civil rights leaders.” 
Equally important, CORE’S efforts with the CAP projects absorbed 
considerable energy, thus deflecting activity away from specifically 
CORE projects. . . . On both counts the War on Poverty proved 
to be a significant contributing factor in the decline of chapter 
activity (363-364). 

The antipoverty program was only one of a number of “Great 
Society” programs in which blacks came to play a role. The Elemen¬ 
tary and Secondary Education Act was another, as was the “Model 
Cities” program. Each helped to integrate the leadership stratum 
of the black movement (and each also provided the services and 
benefits which helped to quiet the black masses). 

The movement was not absorbed by the electoral system and 
related governmental institutions alone. Many other institutions in 
the society also began to admit blacks: business and industry re¬ 
sponded to mass unrest by hiring blacks; institutions of higher educa¬ 
tion, themselves rocked by the struggles of the period, revised their 
admissions policies to admit more minority group members, some 
of whom had been in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle. 
Having gained entry to these institutions, blacks frequently formed 
“caucuses” or developed other intra-institutional subgroups in order 
to exert “black power.” In short, the society overtook the movement, 
depleting its strength by incorporating its cadres and by organizing 
blacks for bureaucratic and electoral politics. 


Electoral Organization and Economic Advance 

The weakening of caste arrangements in the South has brought with 
it some important gains. Chief among these is the reduction of 



256 


Poor People’s Movements 

terror as the principle means of social control. On this count, if on 
no other, the successful struggle for political modernization in the 
South represents a large victory for the mass of blacks. (On May 4, 
1966, for example, more than 80 percent of Alabama’s registered 
blacks voted in the Democratic primary, with the result that sheriffs 
James Clark (Selma) and A1 Lingo (Birmingham) failed to secure 
renomination.) 

But many blacks in the South continue to suffer economic exploita¬ 
tion and the manifold forms of social oppression which make them 
vulnerable to exploitation. The crucial question is whether the win¬ 
ning of formal political rights will now enable blacks to progress 
economically. It was a question put by John Lewis, chairman of 
SNCC, as he addressed the tens of thousands assembled at the March 
on Washington in 1963: “What is in [Kennedy’s civil rights bill] 
that will protect the homeless and starving people of this nation? 
What is there in this bill to insure the equality of a maid who earns 
$5.00 per week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 
a year?” Put another way, the question is whether the exercise of 
the franchise and the now virtually exclusive emphasis upon electoral 
strategies by southern black leaders will produce a meaningful im¬ 
provement in the conditions of life of the southern black poor. We 
think not. 

The election of a modest number of southern black officials will 
clearly not create the political power necessary to secure national 
full employment policies; nor to secure substantial changes in the 
hiring and wage and promotion practices of private industry; nor 
the huge subsidies required to house the southern urban minority 
poor decently; nor any measures, such as land reform coupled with 
federal subsidies, that might enable some of the rural black (and 
white) poor to remain in independent farming in an era of agribusi¬ 
ness; nor reform of the welfare system to insure an adequate mini¬ 
mum income for all who cannot or should not work; nor any one 
of a dozen other policies and programs that might improve the living 
conditions of the black poor. 

Others have made the same point. At the very moment that 
the Voting Rights Act was being enacted, for example, Sindler wrote: 
“The ability and willingness of whites to use the political 
process to resist and confine Negro political influence will make of 
the latter something less than the critical lever for racial advance 
it is assumed to be” (1965, 53). The conclusion, in short, is hardly 
a radical one. Even James Q. Wilson has written that 



257 The Civil Rights Movement 

Negro political activity must be judged as a strategy of limited 
objectives. Where Negroes can and do vote, they have it in their 
power to end the indifference or hostility of their elected repre¬ 
sentatives, but these representatives do not have it in their power 
to alter fundamentally the lot of the Negro: the vote . . . can force 
. . . the removal from office of race-baiters and avowed segrega¬ 
tionists. [But] it can only marginally affect the income, housing , 
occupation, or life chances of Negro electorates (456; our emphasis). 

Aside from a general affirmation of the traditional American 
belief in the efficacy of electoral politics, the proponents of a black 
electoral strategy employ the argument that blacks can now success¬ 
fully engage in “swing vote” politics because of their concentration 
in key northern states together with their growing vote in the South. 
That, it seems to us, is a potential for power much more apparent 
than real. The success of swing vote politics simultaneously requires 
not only an extraordinary unity, but an extraordinary independence. 
The elections since 1936 (with the exception of the election of 1956 
and to a lesser extent that of 1960) amply demonstrate that black 
unity is more than possible. The trend in loyalty to the Demo¬ 
cratic Party has risen steadily since the New Deal period, and is, 
if anything, stronger today than at any time in the past three 
decades. In the elections of 1968 and 1972, for example, blacks voted 
Democratic 87 and 86 percent, respectively. And in the election of 
1976 some 6.6 million black voters delivered 94 percent of their 
votes to the Democrats. 

These data on black unity do not suggest the possibility for elec¬ 
toral independence; they clearly suggest the reverse. If there was 
some weakening of black allegiance to the Democratic Party in the 
elections of 1956 and 1960, the concessions of the civil rights era 
have more than shored up those loyalties. By any measure blacks 
are now the most steadfast bloc in the Democratic coalition. How 
black political leaders might regularly induce these voters to shift 
allegiance from one election to another is, therefore, far from clear. 

Nor is it clear that most minority political leaders would want 
to foster shifting black allegiances, even were they able to do so. 
Blacx leaders are not themselves independent; many owe their posi¬ 
tions less to the resources offered by the black community than to, 
those provided by white party officials. Moreover, the positions of 
most black political leaders depend on the Democratic Party and 
its continued ability to command a majority of the electorate. To 
the extent that a deregulated black vote might jeopardize the ability 



258 


Poor People’s Movements 

of the Democratic Party to maintain power, to that same extent 
would many black officials find their hold on public office jeopardized. 

None of this is to say that the black vote may not at some future 
time become volatile. But should that occur, we suspect that the cause 
will not be the exhortations of minority political leaders, but new 
social and economic changes and the eruption of a new period of 
mass defiance. 


References 

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Matthews, Donald R., and Protho, James W. Negroes and the New 
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1964. 



CHAPTER 

5 


The Welfare Rights 
Movement 


In appraisals of the postwar black movement, much is made of the 
fact that the main economic beneficiaries were members of the mid¬ 
dle class (or those who were prepared by education to enter that 
class). But in fact the black poor also made economic gains, although 
not through the occupational system. One major expression of the 
postwar black movement was the rise in demands for relief, especially 
after 1960 and particularly in the large urban centers of the North. 
A great many of the southern black poor who were driven from 
agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s did not find jobs in the northern 
cities; extreme hardship rapidly became pervasive. But that hardship 
was subsequently eased by the outpouring of relief benefits which 
the turbulence of the sixties produced. The turbulence of the sixties 
also enabled many more poor whites to obtain benefits, so that the 
American lower class as a whole gained from black protest in this 
period. 

The magnitude of the gain can be measured by the numbers of 
additional families aided and by the additional billions of dollars 
distributed through the relief system. In 1960 there were only 745,000 
families on the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) 
rolls and they received payments amounting to less than $1 billion; 
in 1972 the rolls reached 3 million families and the payments reached 
$6 billion. 

Accounts of the civil rights era are curiously myopic on this point; 
264 



265 The Welfare Rights Movement 

the matter is not even mentioned. Except for the rioting that swept 
from one city to another, one would have to conclude from these 
accounts that the urban black poor were inert. This oddity is all 
the greater given the tendency of many analysts to define the riots 
as a form of rebellion; by similar reasoning, the great rise in relief 
insurgency can be understood as a rebellion by the poor against 
circumstances that deprived them of both jobs and income. More¬ 
over, the relief movement was in a sense the most authentic expres¬ 
sion of the black movement in the postwar period. The many hun¬ 
dreds of thousands who participated were drawn from the very 
bottom of the black community. They were neither integrationist 
nor nationalistic; they were neither led nor organized. This move¬ 
ment welled up out of the bowels of the northern ghettos so densely 
packed with the victims of agricultural displacement and urban 
unemployment. It was, in short, a struggle by the black masses for 
the sheer right of survival. 

As this broad-based relief movement burst forth in the early 1960s, 
some black people (and a few whites) banded together in an organiza¬ 
tion dedicated to attacking the relief system. Just as unemployed 
groups sprang up during the Great Depression and eventually formed 
the Workers’ Alliance of America, so in the middle 1960s welfare 
rights groups began to appear and then joined together in the 
National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). In this chapter 
our purpose is to examine the extent to which NWRO contributed 
to the relief movement—to the huge rise in demands for relief and 
the explosion of the relief rolls that followed. 

NWRO is of interest for another reason as well. It was formed 
at a time when the southern civil rights movement had all but 
ended and when many activists were turning northward, drawn by 
the increasing turbulence of the black urban masses. This turbulence, 
together with the concentrations of black voters in the north, en¬ 
couraged the belief that political power could be developed through 
mass organization. The disruptive protests which had characterized 
the southern movement, in short, were quickly superseded by an 
emphasis on the need for “community organization” in the northern 
ghettos. NWRO was one expression of that change, for its leaders 
and organizers—while animated by the spirit of protest—were never¬ 
theless more deeply committed to the goal of building mass-based 
permanent organizations among the urban poor. There were other 
such efforts in the same period, but none gained the national scope 



Poor People’s Movements 266 

of NWRO. 1 An analysis of the experience of NWRO thus affords 
some basis for appraising the viability of this political strategy. 

Virtually nothing has been written about NWRO. During its 
brief life it received relatively little support from civil rights groups 
and it has since received little attention from historians or social 
scientists. 2 The analysis in this chapter is therefore based almost 
entirely on our own observations, for we were intimately involved in 
the affairs of NWRO: we participated in discussions of strategy, in 
fund-raising efforts, and in demonstrations. 3 We were strong advocates 
of a particular political strategy—one stressing disruptive protest 
rather than community organization—which was a continual source 
of dispute among NWRO’s leadership, as will become evident later 
in this chapter. To what extent our involvement and partisanship 
may have distorted the analysis which follows is for the reader to 
judge. 


The Rise of a Relief Movement 

Aid to Families with Dependent Children was created under the 
Social Security Act of 1935. 4 By 1940 all states had enacted the 
necessary enabling legislation and people were beginning to be 
admitted to the rolls. But the main thing to be understood about 
this widely hailed reform is that few of the poor benefited from it; 
welfare statutes and practices were designed to enforce work norms 
and to insure the availability of low-paid laborers by restricting aid. 


1 Meier and Rudwick’s account of CORE’S activities in the northern cities contains a 
good deal of documentation on this shifting emphasis to community organization in 
the mid-sixties. It also portrays the rather dismal failure of CORE’S efforts in em¬ 
ploying this strategy. 

2 There are a few doctoral dissertations and other essays by students. Steiner is the only 
senior social scientist to have written about NWRO (see his chapter eight). 

3 The reader should know that we were close to George A. Wiley, its executive director, 
who died in an accident in the summer of 197S. He was a marvelously talented leader, 
and a good friend. We feel his loss deeply. 

4 There were three categories of public assistance: Old Age Assistance, Aid to the Blind, 
and Aid to Dependent Children (later changed to Aid to Families with Dependent 
Children). AFDC was the main category of aid to poor families, and it was this category 
which showed the great rise in the 1960s. These programs were supervised by and 
partially financed by the federal government, but the states and localities administered 
them. A fourth category. Aid to Permanently and Totally Disabled, was added in 1950. 




267 The Welfare Rights Movement 

All able-bodied adults without children, as well as all two-parent 
families, were simply disqualified by federal law; state and county 
statutes and practices disqualified many more of the remaining poor. 
Cost was also a factor in keeping the rolls down. The federal govern¬ 
ment paid part of relief costs; states and localities paid the remainder. 
Local officials thus had a strong incentive to make relief difficult 
to obtain. 

In the 1960s and early 1970s the relief rolls greatly expanded, 5 
especially in northern states and localities. The force underlying 
this expansion was the rise of a relief movement. 


UNDERMINING THE LEGITIMACY OF POVERTY 

As we noted in chapter 4, economic distress worsened among large 
segments of the poor after World War II. Unemployment became 
pervasive in agriculture, especially in the South, and urban unem¬ 
ployment was also high. Unemployment declined briefly during the 
Korean War but then rose abruptly. Blacks were especially hard hit. 
Official nonwhite unemployment stood at 4.5 percent in the last 
year of the war, rose to 13 percent in the recession of 19^8, and re¬ 
mained above 10 percent until the escalation of the war in Vietnam. 
In the northern urban ghettos, unemployment reached depression 
levels. “For example, 41 percent of the Negro men in one census 
tract in Detroit, wholly populated by Negroes, were jobless in 1960; 
in certain census tracts in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore— 
where 90 percent or more of the inhabitants were Negro—the rates 
ranged from 24 percent to 36 percent.” 6 

But hardship did not lead poor people to apply for public aid in 
large numbers. The ethic of self-reliance and the denigration of the 
pauper are powerful controlling forces. Moreover government did 


s All figures in this section, and elsewhere in this chapter, pertaining to the relief ex¬ 
pansion of the 1960s are taken from the Source Tables contained in the Appendix of 
Piven and Cloward (1971). Data on applications and approvals are contained in Source 
Table 5; data on the number of AFDC families are contained in Source Table 1. The 
relief rises for the largest cities in the nation are contained in Source Table 2. The 
figures include AFDC-UP cases and are for the contiguous United States only, 
e U. S. Department of Labor, 1964, 48. 




268 


Poor People’s Movements 

not respond to economic distress: of those few families who did apply 
for aid, roughly half were simply turned away. The result was a 
negligible rise in the relief rolls—from 635,000 families in 1950 to 
745,000 in 1960, an increase of only 110,000 families (or 17 percent) 
during a decade in which millions of the displaced agricultural 
poor migrated to the cities. These people simply endured their 
hardships. 

But that was shortly to change. One factor was the emergence of 
poverty as a national political issue. The recessions of the late 1950s 
figured prominently in the presidential campaign of 1960. Kennedy 
repeatedly called for “an economic drive against poverty” (Schle- 
singer, 1006), and when the ballots were counted, an embittered 
Nixon attributed his defeat in no small part to Eisenhower's eco¬ 
nomic policies, which had failed to prevent recessions, particularly 
in the year of the presidential campaign itself. 7 Within a few days 
after he assumed office, Kennedy forwarded legislation to the Con¬ 
gress proposing “to add a temporary thirteen-week supplement to 
unemployment benefits ... to extend aid to the children of unem¬ 
ployed workers ... to redevelop distressed areas ... to increase Social 
Security payments and encourage earlier retirement . . . [and] . . . 
to raise the minimum wage and broaden its coverage . . .” (Soren¬ 
sen, 397). 

Although Kennedy’s concern with economic problems was mainly 
a response to his broad working-class constituency, it was to some 
degree a response to his black constituency. From the moment he 
took office, he needed to defend himself against civil rights critics 
who believed he was reneging on his pledges to send a civil rights 
bill to the Congress: 

When civil rights leaders . . . reproached [Kennedy] in 1961 for 

not seeking legislation, he told them that an increased minimum 


7 It was the fourth serious recession since the close of World War II. Each had been 
followed by a higher plateau of long-term unemployment—the Department of Labor 
called it a “squeeze-out”: “The major increase in this squeeze-out from the labor force 
among nonwhites seems to have occurred after 1958, a year of recession from which 
there has been only imperfect recovery in many respects. Unemployment among non¬ 
whites had in fact risen sharply during each of the postwar recessions, and since 1954 
had failed to recover to the same extent as white unemployment rates during each 
subsequent business pick-up. The familiar pattern of ‘first to be fired, last to be 
rehired’ appears to have become ‘first to be fired, and possibly never to be rehired’" 
(1964, 82). When Kennedy assumed office, the last of these recessions had left the 
nation with an official unemployment rate of 7 percent—6 percent among whites 
and 12.5 percent among nonwhites. 




269 The Welfare Rights Movement 

wage, federal aid to education and other social and economic meas¬ 
ures were also civil rights bills (Schlesinger, 976). 8 

At the start, then, the Kennedy Administration’s emphasis on poverty 
was a way to evade civil rights demands while maintaining black 
support. 

But the civil rights struggle intensified, and as it did blacks became 
more indignant over their condition—not only as an oppressed 
racial minority in a white society but as poor people in an affluent 
one. The civil rights victories being won in the South would, after 
all, be of greatest immediate benefit to southern blacks and particu¬ 
larly to southern blacks who were already in, or were prepared to 
enter, the middle class. By the early 1960s dozens of rural counties 
in which blacks were finally winning the right to vote or to take 
any seat they wished on a bus no longer contained many blacks to 
do either. Agricultural unemployment together with punitive south¬ 
ern relief practices which kept displaced agricultural workers off 
the rolls had compelled the migration that inexorably diminished the 
ranks of the rural black poor. In the cities, unemployment, under¬ 
employment, low wages, and relief restrictions created new hard¬ 
ships. A civil rights revolution was occurring but poor urban blacks 
had little to show for it. 

By 1962 and 1963 many civil rights activists had begun to shift 
their emphasis to economic problems. They organized boycotts, 
picket lines, and demonstrations to attack discrimination in access 
to jobs; rent strikes were organized to protest substandard housing 
conditions and rent gouging; urban renewal sites were overrun with 
protestors. Economic issues thus emerged as a major focus of dis¬ 
content, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 
August 1963 gave national prominence to this discontent. 


8 As is his wont in interpreting the actions of presidents, Schlesinger attributes only 
statesmanlike motives to Kennedy. Unemployment did not worry Kennedy "politically 
because he was sure the unemployed would never turn to the Republicans to create 
jobs for them. But it worried him socially. Unemployment was especially acute among 
Negroes, already so alienated from American society, and among young people, and it 
thereby placed a growing strain on the social fabric” (1006). But, of course, the "strain 
on the social fabric” was a political problem, whether one refers to the organized 
protests over unemployment and discrimination or to the reactions of other groups 'to 
the growing crime rates and other manifestations of social disorder resulting from the 
lack of integration of blacks in the occupational system. Moreover, it was a rapidly 
intensifying political problem, for with the outbreak of ghetto riots in 1964, the 
reverberations of this "strain on the social fabric” alienated many whites and helped 
return the Republicans to power in 1968. 



270 


Poor People’s Movements 

Even as the March on Washington was being planned, officials in 
the national government launched a new wave of rhetoric about 
economic injustice together with pronouncements regarding the 
importance of creating new programs to deal with poverty. The 
process of planning began in a cabinet meeting in June, just follow¬ 
ing the civil rights crisis in Birmingham and just before the March 
on Washington: 

Kennedy devoted a large part of . . . [this meeting] ... to a discus¬ 
sion of the problem of Negro unemployment, and he initiated a 
series of staff studies on that subject. Throughout the summer of 
1963, professionals in the relevant executive agencies—the Council 
of Economic Advisors, the Bureau of the Budget, the Department 
of Labor and HEW . . . were at work producing what was shortly 
to become a flood of staff papers. In November President Kennedy 
advised . . . [his aides] . . . that he intended to make an attack on 
poverty a key legislative objective in 1964 . . . (Donovan, 23). 

If Kennedy had launched a wave of rhetoric about poverty, Johnson 
swelled it to the proportions of a tidal wave following the assassina¬ 
tion. In his State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964, he began 
by calling for an “unconditional war on poverty in America. [We] 
shall not rest until that war is won.” Later in January the president 
proposed to the Congress the Economic Opportunities Bill of 1964 
(the antipoverty program), 9 and throughout the spring of 1964 he 
campaigned vigorously for the antipoverty program among various 
interest groups: among labor leaders, business leaders, religious 
leaders, civil rights leaders. In speeches and press releases Johnson 
mobilized public opinion to support the program. The result was 
that “public awareness of poverty in the United States, virtually non¬ 
existent a year earlier, [became] pervasive. But most important, John¬ 
son had made the War on Poverty part of the national consensus” 
(Evans and Novak, 431). The Congress acted with extraordinary dis¬ 
patch, and the president signed the bill in August, just before the 
presidential election. 


9 The bill was based on a report from the Task Force on Manpower Conservation, a 
cabinet-level committee which had been appointed by President Kennedy on September 
SO (just weeks after the March on Washington). 




271 


The Welfare Rights Movement 


ANTIPOVERTY SERVICES 

What the antipoverty program actually did was to greatly expand 
an array of service programs initiated on a smaller scale during 
the Kennedy years. One of these Kennedy programs was the Juvenile 
Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act (1961) under which 
“community action programs” had been established in twenty cities. 
In addition the Manpower Development and Training Act had 
been legislated in 1962, followed by the Community Mental Health 
Centers Act (1963). Later in the decade the Demonstration Cities 
and Metropolitan Development Act became law (1966). 

For a time these programs did not so much moderate unrest as 
provide the vehicles through which the black ghettos mobilized to 
demand government services. 10 They activated a new leadership 
structure in the ghettos and they also activated masses of black poor. 
This occurred because some funds from these programs were per¬ 
mitted to flow directly into ghetto neighborhoods—a form of direct 
federal patronage to minority groups. And ghetto groups were en¬ 
couraged by federal policymakers to use these funds to create organi¬ 
zations and to press their own interests, especially in the arena of 
municipal services and politics. 

The role of the new service programs in stimulating applications 
for public assistance after 1965 was very large. As thousands of social 
workers and community aides who were hired by community action 
agencies across the country came into contact with the poor, they 
were compelled to begin to learn the welfare regulations and to learn 
how to fight to obtain aid for their new clients. To have done any¬ 
thing else would have been to make themselves irrelevant to those 
who were presumably their constituents. Quite simply, the poor 
needed money; the lack of money underlay most of the problems 
which families brought to antipoverty personnel in storefront cen¬ 
ters and other community action agencies across the nation. 

In short order antipoverty lawyers also became active in these 
efforts. Thus, when community action workers could not succeed 
in establishing a family’s eligibility for assistance, attorneys instituted 


For an extended discussion of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations' economic 
and service strategy for coping with black unrest, see chapter nine of Piven and Cloward 
(1971); see also the various articles by Piven in part four of Cloward and Piven (1974). 




272 


Poor People’s Movements 

test cases and won stunning victories in state courts and then in the 
federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Man-in-the-house rules, 
residence laws, employable mother rules, and a host of other statutes, 
policies, and regulations which kept people off the rolls were eventu¬ 
ally struck down. 11 The consequence of these court rulings was to 
make whole new categories of people eligible so that many who 
would previously have been turned away had to be granted assistance. 
Furthermore, as antipoverty staff began to discover that thousands 
of potentially eligible families populated the slums and ghettos, 
“welfare rights” handbooks were prepared and distributed by the 
tens of thousands, with the result that many more people were in¬ 
formed about the possibility of assistance. After 1965, in short, the 
poor were informed of their “right” to welfare, encouraged to apply 
for it, and helped to obtain it. A multifaceted campaign against 
welfare restrictiveness had formed with the federal government as 
its chief source of both resources and legitimacy. 12 


THE IMPACT OF RIOTS 

The mass rioting throughout the nation between 1964 and 1968 
had a substantial impact on the new service programs. There were 
twenty-one major riots and civil disorders in 1966 and eighty-three 
major disturbances in 1967. July of 1967, for example, was a month 
of riots. In Milwaukee four persons died; in Detroit forty-three died. 
Disturbances occurred across the entire nation: in Cambridge, Mary¬ 
land; in Lansing, Kalamazoo, Saginaw, and Grand Rapids, Michigan; 
in Philadelphia; Providence; Phoenix; Portland; Wichita; South 
Bend; Memphis, Tennessee; Wilmington, Delaware; San Francisco, 
San Bernardino, Long Beach, Fresno, and Marin City, California; 
Rochester, Mt. Vernon, Poughkeepsie, Peekskill, and Nyack, New 


n The most prominent attorney involved in this nationwide litigation thrust was 
Edward Sparer, who began welfare litigation as an attorney for Mobilization for Youth, 
an antipoverty program. He continued this work as director of the Center on Social 
Welfare Policy and Law and as chief counsel for the National Welfare Rights 
Organization. 

12 Chapter ten of Piven and Cloward (1971) contains a detailed description of the role 
of the Great Society programs, especially the antipoverty program, in promoting the 
welfare explosion of the 1960s. 




273 


The Welfare Rights Movement 

York; in Hartford, Connecticut; in Englewood, Paterson, Elizabeth, 
New Brunswick, Jersey City, Palmyra, and Passaic, New Jersey. As 
the month of July ended a Civil Disturbance Task Force was estab¬ 
lished in the Pentagon, and the president established a “Riot Com¬ 
mission.” Just seven months later (February 1968), the commission 
called for “a massive and sustained commitment to action” to end 
poverty and racial discrimination. Only days before, in the State of 
the Union Message, the president had announced legislative pro¬ 
posals for programs to train and hire the hardcore unemployed and 
to rebuild the cities. 

Given these momentous forces of mass protest and government con¬ 
ciliation, the service personnel in the programs of the Great Society 
had little choice but to turn more militant if they were to satisfy 
their constituents. Thus they no longer negotiated wih their counter¬ 
parts in local agencies (the school systems, the urban renewal authori¬ 
ties, the welfare departments); they demanded responses favorable 
to their clients. They no longer held back on law suits that might be 
especially offensive to local political leaders and agency administra¬ 
tors; they sued and often won. And they no longer shied away from 
organizing the poor to protest the policies and practices of local 
agencies; they led them. This was one cause of the relief explosion 
of the 1960s. 


A RELIEF MOVEMENT EMERGES 

With a rising curve of antipoverty rhetoric, of funding for new anti¬ 
poverty services, and of ghetto rioting, applications for relief formed 
a similarly rising curve. Many of the poor had apparently come to 
believe that a society which denied them jobs and adequate wages 
did at least owe them a survival income. It was a period that began 
to resemble the Great Depression, for in both periods masses of 
people concluded that “the system” was responsible for their eco¬ 
nomic plight, not they themselves, and so they turned in growing 
numbers to the relief offices. 

In 1960, 588,000 families applied for AFDC benefits. In 1963, the 
year that political leaders first placed poverty on the national agenda, 
788,000 families applied—an increase of one-third.. In 1966, the first 
year antipoverty programs were in full swing across the country, the 



274 


Poor People’s Movements 

number reached 903,000—up by more than half over 1960. In 1968, 
the year that rioting finally reached a crescendo, applications had 
doubled over 1960 to 1,088,000—and they exceeded one million in 
each year thereafter. 13 A relief movement involving millions of par¬ 
ticipants had unmistakably emerged. 


GOVERNMENT RESPONSES TO THE RELIEF MOVEMENT 

The rising curve of applications was matched by the curve of ap¬ 
provals. As more families applied, 1 proportionately still more families 
were granted assistance. In 1960, 55 percent of applicants got relief. 
The figure reached 57 percent in 1963, 64 percent in 1966, and 
70 percent in 1968. Approval levels in many northern cities were 
even higher; it is only slightly exaggerated to say that virtually any 
low-income family who walked into a welfare center toward the end 
of the 1960s received aid. 

The liberalized practices of the relief system were also the result 
of a complex of forces. State and local welfare officials were influenced 
by the national rhetoric on poverty and injustice, and they were 
surely harassed by the staff of the new federal service programs into 
making more liberal decisions. Moreover, relief officials (and the 
political leaders to whom they reported) were frightened of rioting. 
Some of these riots, in fact, were directly related to welfare demon¬ 
strations or were provoked by welfare injustices. The riot in the sum¬ 
mer of 1966 in Cleveland’s Hough area was precipitated by the 
demeaning treatment by the police of a welfare recipient who was 
trying to collect money to forestall the final indignity of a pauper’s 
funeral for another recipient who had just died (Stein, 3-4). In the 
spring of 1967 welfare rights groups in Boston staged a sit-in at the 
welfare department. When the police beat the demonstrators, they 
screamed from the windows to the streets below, triggering three 
days of rioting—the first in that especially violent summer. 14 Gen- 


13 No data are available which directly relate rioting and rises in the AFDC rolls. 
However one study is available on the impact of rioting on the General Assistance rolls. 
Thus Betz says: “Data on 23 riot cities are compared to 20 nonriot cities of similar 
size. . . . Analysis revealed riot cities had larger budgetary increases in welfare the year 
following their riot” (345). 

14 For a discussion of the origins and political consequences of this riot, see Fiske, 21-22. 




275 The Welfare Rights Movement 

erally speaking, public officials in the northern cities moved gingerly 
in those years: the police were schooled to avoid provocative inci¬ 
dents, urban renewal authorities were not so quick to bulldoze 
slum and ghetto neighborhoods, and welfare officials handed out 
relief more freely. 

The mood of applicants in welfare waiting rooms had changed. 
They were no longer as humble, as self-effacing, as pleading; they 
were more indignant, angrier, more demanding. As a consequence, 
welfare officials—especially the intake workers who are the gate¬ 
keepers of the system—employed their discretion more permissively. 
Traditional procedures for investigating eligibility broke down: 
home visits were no longer made with any frequency, requirements 
that forms be sent to various agencies to determine whether the 
family might have collateral income or eligibility for other forms of 
assistance (veteran’s pensions, etc.) tended to be neglected. For all 
practical purposes, welfare operating procedures collapsed; regula¬ 
tions were simply ignored in order to process the hundreds of thou¬ 
sands of families who jammed the welfare waiting rooms. 

Welfare agencies also became less harsh in dealing with those 
who obtained assistance. Termination rates began to drop, especially 
terminations for “failure to comply with departmental regulations’' 
—a catch-all category that included anything from refusal to help 
locate a “responsible” father to failing to appear for an interview. 

As a result of these changes the relief rolls rose precipitously. In 
1960, 745,000 families received assistance; in 1968, the number 
reached 1.5 million. Then, between 1968 and 1972, the rolls surged 
to 3 million families—an increase of 300 percent over 1960. Money 
payments, less than $1 billion in 1960, reached $6 billion in 1972. 
Unacknowledged and unled, a relief movement had emerged, and it 
was achieving income gains for the participants. 


A Proposal to Mobilize an 
Institutional Disruption 

In 1965 we had completed research showing that for every family 
on the AFDC rolls, at least one other was eligible but unaided. A 
huge pool of families with incomes below prevailing welfare grant 
schedules had built up in the cities as a result of migration and un- 



276 


Poor People’s Movements 

employment. If hundreds of thousands of families could be induced 
to demand relief, we thought that two gains might result. First, if 
large numbers of people succeeded in getting on the rolls, much of 
the worst of America’s poverty would be eliminated. Second, for 
reasons we will explain, we thought it likely that a huge increase 
in the relief rolls would set off fiscal and political crises in the cities, 
the reverberations of which might lead national political leaders 
to federalize the relief system and establish a national minimum 
income standard. It was a strategy designed to obtain immediate 
economic aid for the poor, coupled with the possibility of obtain¬ 
ing a longer-term national income standard. 

These ideas were spelled out in a mimeographed paper entitled 
“A Strategy to End Poverty,” 15 which we circulated among organizers 
and activists in late 1965. With turmoil spreading in the cities, with 
the prohibition against going on relief already being defied on a large 
scale by the poor, and with the resources of the antipoverty program 
available to be drawn upon, we argued that activists of all kinds 
should join in a massive drive to mobilize the unaided poor to disrupt 
the relief system all the more by demanding relief. 

One person who was responsive to the idea of organizing in the 
welfare arena was George A. Wiley, whom we knew from CORE. 
He was at the time on the verge of resigning as CORE’S associate 
national director, mainly in opposition to the rising surge of black 
nationalist sentiment that was engulfing that organization in early 
1966. George had been mulling over the possibility of undertaking 
a broad, multi-issue organizing effort among the northern urban 
poor, but had not settled on a definite plan. Our proposal, together 
with the fact that a few “welfare rights” groups had already formed 
(mainly under the auspices of local antipoverty programs, and mainly 
in New York City), suggested a way to begin. 10 

At that particular moment, civil rights activists, and especially 
northern activists, were shifting away from caste problems to eco¬ 
nomic problems. This, together with the rising insurgency among 
urban blacks signified by rioting, suggested that a powerful move- 


15 This article was published in The Nation magazine on May 2, 1966; reprinted in 
Cloward and Piven (1974). Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in this section 
are taken from this article. 

16 When George subsequently formed the National Welfare Rights Organization, he 
attracted a number of CORE veterans to welfare rights organizing, among them Bruce 
Thomas. 




277 


The Welfare Rights Movement 

ment directed toward economic gains could be developed. The 
responsiveness of national political leaders in this period also sug¬ 
gested that victories could be won, that change was possible. But it 
was not clear how activists could, as a practical day-to-day matter of 
organizing, mount an attack on poverty by attacking its main cause— 
underemployment and unemployment. What our plan proposed 
instead was a way of attacking the lack of income resulting from 
unemployment; it was appealing to some organizers for that reason. 

For George, the first question was whether welfare was a promising 
area in which to mount an initial organizing effort, as contrasted with 
housing or education or health. To consider that question he con¬ 
vened a series of small meetings with us and a few friends from the 
civil rights movement. These meetings took place during the spring 
of 1966 in New York City. Much of the discussion was about the 
workings of the welfare system itself and about the estimates we 
had made of the many hundreds of thousands of families with incomes 
below scheduled welfare eligibility levels in various northern cities. 
We had also gathered data showing that few of the families already 
on the rolls were receiving all of the benefits to which they were 
entitled. 

At first, there was some skepticism about our assertions regarding 
the existence of a huge pool of eligible but unaided families. When 
George tried to obtain confirmation of these assertions by consulting 
prominent social welfare professionals, some of them advised him that 
our data were not valid and that we were engaged in a campaign 
of propaganda against the welfare system. (Some even said the data 
were faked.) Nor were there supporting data from other studies. 
Dominant cultural definitions of the deleterious consequences of 
relief-giving were so strong that it was simply not a question that 
researchers had asked. To resolve his uncertainties, George asked a 
close associate, Edwin Day, to replicate our studies. Day’s subsequent 
conclusion was that we had erred in being much too conservative in 
our estimates of the size of the pool of eligible but unaided families. 
A consensus was thus reached that campaigns to drive Up the rolls 
and to create a welfare crisis were worth trying. George made this 
clear in a public debate in the late spring of 1966: 

Well, I’d have to say that the appearance of the strategy by Cloward 
and Piven has represented a shot in the arm to a lot of the civil- 
rights activists around the country. A lot of us who have come 
out of the civil-rights movement have been concerned that there 



278 


Poor People’s Movements 

develop a significant movement in the northern ghettos, and a lot 
of people who have been trying to work in the ghettos in major 
urban areas have been really quite frustrated about finding signifi¬ 
cant handles for bringing about some substantial change in the 
living conditions of people there. 

This idea of releasing the potential for major economic pressure 
through trying to encourage people to gain their rights in the 
welfare system is one that has had immediate response and has 
been enormously attractive to activists working in urban areas. I 
may say that a lot of us have been hampered in our thinking 
about the potential here by our own middle-class backgrounds— 
and I think most activists basically come out of middle-class back¬ 
grounds—and were oriented toward people having to work, and 
that we have to get as many people as possible off the welfare rolls. 
And I think the idea that for millions—particularly people who 
can’t work, people who are senior citizens or female heads of house¬ 
hold—just encouraging them to assert their rights is a very attrac¬ 
tive thing. I think that this strategy is going to catch on and be 
very important in the time ahead. In the history of the civil-rights 
movement the thing that attracted me is the fact that the substantial 
changes that have taken place such as the Civil Rights Act of '64 
and Voting Rights Act of ’65 particularly have come about as the 
result of major drives in one or more cities where substantial con¬ 
frontations have taken place which have plunged the nation into 
significant crises. And I think that a crisis strategy has been the 
only one that has really produced major success in the civil-rights 
field (from “Strategy of Crisis: A Dialogue,” reprinted in Cloward 
and Piven, 1974). 


CONFLICTING THEORIES OF POLITICAL INFLUENCE 

Despite this initial enthusiasm, there were some differences over 
strategy that emerged during these discussions, and they all led back 
directly or indirectly to the general question of how the poor could 
exert political influence. In “A Strategy to End Poverty,” we had 
argued a perspective that ran counter to the conventional wisdom 
regarding the nature of the American political system; and our views 
about organizing also ran counter to traditional organizing doctrines. 
Three specific areas of disagreement emerged. 

First, we argued against the traditional organizing notion that poor 
people can become an effective political force by coming together in 



279 The Welfare Rights Movement 

mass-based organizations. We did not think the political system 
would be responsive to such organizations, even if large numbers of 
the poor could be involved on a continuing basis. We had been 
studying earlier efforts—the Workers’ Alliance of America, the 
southern civil rights movement, the northern rent strikes in the 
early 1960s. Organizational pressure did not seem to yield much 
but disruptive protests sometimes did. 

We thought the welfare system was particularly vulnerable to dis¬ 
ruption by the poor because of the large concentrations of poten¬ 
tially eligible families in the northern industrial states produced by 
migration and urban unemployment. These states and their locali¬ 
ties were also the most exposed to ghetto discontent. At the same 
time, because of the method by which welfare was financed (states 
with high grant levels—mainly northern states—received propor¬ 
tionately less federal reimbursement than states with low grant 
levels), these same states were the most susceptible to fiscal distress 
if demands for welfare mounted. Finally, the northern industrial 
states were crucial to the fortunes of the national Democratic Party 
and so disturbances in these states could have large political ramifica¬ 
tions at the federal level: 

A series of welfare drives in large cities would, we believe, impel 
action on a new federal program to distribute income. . . . Wide¬ 
spread campaigns to register the eligible poor for welfare aid . . . 
would produce bureaucratic disruption in welfare agencies and 
fiscal disruption in local and state governments. These disruptions 
would generate severe political strains, and deepen existing divisions 
among elements in the big-city Democratic coalition: the remaining 
white middle class, the white working-class ethnic groups and the 
growing minority poor. To avoid a further weakening of that his¬ 
toric coalition, a national Democratic administration would be con¬ 
strained to advance a federal solution to poverty that would override 
local revenue dilemmas. By the internal disruption of local bureau¬ 
cratic practices, by the furor over public welfare policies, and by 
the collapse of current financing arrangements, powerful forces can 
be generated for major economic reforms at the national level. 

In order to maximize the disruptive potential of such drives, we 
thought that whatever organizing resources could be obtained should 
be concentrated on developing enrollment campaigns in a small num¬ 
ber of big cities in states of critical national electoral importance 
(e.g., New York, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, 
etc.), thus improving the chances of creating a political crisis of 



Poor People’s Movements 280 

sufficient importance to warrant intervention by national political 
leaders. 

As for the poor themselves, there was every reason to believe that 
they would join in such a mobilization, for the statistics on rising 
welfare application rates demonstrated that they already were, sep¬ 
arately but in concert, fulfilling the outlines of a disruptive strategy. 
All that remained, we argued, was for organizers to enlarge and 
sustain the disruptive behavior in which masses of the poor were 
unmistakably beginning to engage. 

But organizers in the 1960s took a different view. They had in¬ 
spected the American political landscape and observed that other 
groups were well represented by organizations that asserted their 
special interests. Homeowners formed associations to resist govern¬ 
ment actions which might lower property values, workers joined 
unions to advance labor legislation, and industrialists joined associ¬ 
ations that pressed for favorable treatment of corporations by a host 
of government agencies. While homeowner associations were hardly 
as powerful as the American Petroleum Institute, that seemed less 
important at the time than the fact that other groups were organized 
and the poor were not. Accordingly it was argued that if the poor 
organized they too could advance their interests. 

Of course, everyone recognized that organizations of the poor 
lacked the substantial resources possessed by other organizations 
which could be brought to bear on the political process—the control 
of wealth, of key economic activities, of the media, and the like. 
Still, the organizers said, this lack of resources could be compensated 
for by the sheer numbers which the poor represented. If large num¬ 
bers could be organized, political influence would result. It was 
this perspective which tended to prevail in these early discussions. 


GOVERNMENT RESPONSES TO A WELFARE CRISIS 

A second and related area of disagreement had to do with the prob¬ 
lem of controlling government responses to a welfare crisis. There 
were two points of difference. One concerned the possibility that 
government might respond with repressive measures. Everyone fore¬ 
saw that rising welfare costs would arouse large sectors of the public 
to demand that mayors, county officials, and governors slash the rolls 
and cut grant levels. For our part, we did not think most public 



281 The Welfare Rights Movement 

officials would accede to such demands while the ghettos remained in 
turmoil. Markedly repressive welfare measures would entail the risk 
that rioting might worsen. Blacks had also become a modest elec¬ 
toral force in the northern cities; deep slashes in either the rolls 
or grant levels could be expected to engender considerable antag¬ 
onism among those voters. 

But mainly we argued that even if the welfare rolls were cut, 
poor people as a group would not be worse off than they had been 
before the rolls expanded, when large numbers of families had been 
denied relief in any case. If many now succeeded in getting on the 
rolls only to be cut off again, they would at least have made a tem¬ 
porary gain. 

For their part, organizers in these early discussions agreed that 
impulses toward repression would probably be tempered and that 
a temporary gain was better than no gain at all. But they also felt 
they had an obligation to protect the poor against any possibility of 
repression. The way to do this, as they saw it, was to create an 
organized body of welfare recipients who could bring pressure di¬ 
rectly to bear on public officials, thus counteracting the pressures of 
groups who would call for restrictive welfare policies. 

Organizers also thought that a large-scale poor people’s organiza¬ 
tion would be required to win a national minimum income from the 
Congress. This brings us to the second point in our disagreement 
over the question of how government would respond. We maintained 
that the way to bring pressure on government was through the dis¬ 
ruption of the welfare system itself and through the electoral crisis 
that would probably follow. We thought that the role of crisis as 
a political resource for the poor had not been understood, either by 
political analysts or by organizers. What we meant by a political 
crisis was electoral dissensus—the extreme polarization of major elec¬ 
toral constituencies. When acute conflicts of this kind occur, politi¬ 
cal leaders try to promulgate policies that will moderate the polariza¬ 
tion, in order to maintain voting majorities. 

Since we all agreed that extreme repression was not a likely re¬ 
sponse, what then would mayors and governors do in order to manage 
the political divisions created by welfare disruptions? We thought 
they would try to deal with their problem by calling upon the federal 
government with increasing insistence to take over the welfare pro¬ 
gram, thus solving their fiscal and political problems. In other words, 
we said, a disruption in welfare could be expected to activate lobby¬ 
ing by other and far more Dowerful groups for a goal which the poor 



282 


Poor People’s Movements 

could not possibly hope to achieve were they simply to lobby them¬ 
selves. (This is not very different from what did in fact happen; 
by the late 1960s political leaders in the major northern states be¬ 
came articulate spokesmen for federal action in the welfare area. 17 ) 

With what new policies would national Democratic leaders re¬ 
spond? There was no certain way of knowing, but there was some 
basis for speculation. Already faced with deepening cleavages among 
large blocs in the urban strongholds of the party—cleavages that 
would be rapidly worsened by a welfare crisis—Democratic leaders 
might be prompted to press for a national minimum income program 
to relieve urban conflicts (and to slow the migration that was fuel¬ 
ing those conflicts): 

Deep tensions have developed among groups comprising the polit¬ 
ical coalitions of the large cities—the historic stronghold of the 
Democratic Party. As a consequence, urban politicians no longer 
turn in the vote to national Democratic candidates with unfailing 
regularity. The marked defections revealed in the elections of the 
1950’s and which continued until the Johnson landslide of 1964 
are a matter of great concern to the national party. Precisely be¬ 
cause of this concern, a strategy to exacerbate still further the 
strains in the urban coalition [by driving up the welfare rolls] can 
be expected to evoke a response from national leaders. If this 
strategy for crisis would intensify group cleavages, a federal income 
solution would not further exacerbate them. 

But this perspective was deeply troubling to organizers. We were 
saying that the poor can create crises but cannot control the response 
to them. They can only hope that the balance of political forces 
provoked in response to a disruption will favor concessions rather 
than repression. To organizers, this amounted to asking the poor to 
“create a crisis and pray.’’ It seemed speculative and very risky. Con¬ 
sequently they felt that the strategy had to be modified to assure 
greater control by the poor over the outcome of a welfare crisis. The 
way to develop that control was by building a national mass-based 
organization. Then, as political leaders weighed alternative ways of 
dealing with the crisis, they would have to contend with a powerful 
pressure group that had its own remedies to put forward. 


17 In this regard the parallel with the Great Depression is striking. As we noted in 
chapter three, the United States Conference of Mayors formed in the 1930s for the express 
purpose of lobbying for federal fiscal aid to relieve localities of burgeoning welfare 
costs. 


283 The Welfare Rights Movement 

We could only agree that our proposal entailed risks. But we 
also thought there were no gains for the poor without risks. In this 
connection, the one case we invoked in support of a disruptive 
strategy—the civil rights movement—actually served to weaken our 
argument. Some of the people in these early discussions had been 
involved in the southern phase of the civil rights movement and 
were disenchanted with mass-mobilization and mass-confrontation 
tactics. They believed that these tactics—mass defiance of caste rules, 
followed by arrests and police violence—were wrong because they had 
failed to build black organizations in local southern communities. 
When an SCLC campaign ended, for example, and SCLC moved 
on to another city to mobilize further confrontations, the local peo¬ 
ple were left unorganized and vulnerable to retaliation by whites. 
The influence this criticism of the civil rights movement had upon 
the thinking of those who subsequently became welfare rights or¬ 
ganizers has been noted by Whitaker: 

Wishing to avoid what they perceived as the most debilitating 
mistakes of the civil rights movement—failure to create a strong, 
organized constituency and failure to develop internal sources of 
funds—the [NWRO] promoters concentrated their first three years’ 
efforts upon the creation of a national organizational structure and 
the recruitment of membership (120-121). 

It could not be denied that from a conventional political perspective 
SCLC’s strategy was manipulative. SCLC did not build local organi¬ 
zations to obtain local victories; it clearly attempted to create a 
series of disruptions to which the federal government would have 
to respond. And that strategy succeeded. We did not think that 
local organizations of the southern black poor (even if they could 
have been developed on a mass scale) would have ever gained the 
political influence necessary to secure a Civil Rights Act of 1964 
or a Voting Rights Act of 1965, and they probably would not have 
won significant local victories, either. It had taken a major political 
crisis—the literal fragmenting of the regional foundation of the 
national Democratic Party—to finally force those legislative conces¬ 
sions to southern blacks. Similarly, we argued that while building 
a network of welfare rights groups might result*in some victories in 
contests with local welfare administrators, these local groups could 
not possibly build the political pressure from which a national in¬ 
come standard for all of the poor might result. Any hope for such 
a large outcome depended on mobilizing a major political crisis; 



284 


Poor People’s Movements 

it depended on producing a divisive welfare explosion that would 
threaten to fragment the Democratic coalition in the big northern 
cities. Our views, however, were not persuasive. 


MOBILIZING VERSUS ORGANIZING 

Finally, we maintained that political influence by the poor is mobi¬ 
lized, not organized. A disruptive strategy does not require that 
people affiliate with an organization and participate regularly. 
Rather, it requires that masses of people be mobilized to engage in 
disruptive action. To mobilize for a welfare disruption, families 
would be encouraged to demand relief. Just by engaging in that 
defiant act, they could contribute to a fiscal and political crisis. On 
the other hand, if they were asked to contribute to an organization 
on a continuing basis, we did not think most would, for organizers 
had no continuing incentives to offer. 

To mobilize a crisis, we thought it would be necessary to develop 
a national network of cadre organizations rather than a national 
federation of welfare recipient groups. This organization of orga¬ 
nizers —composed of students, churchmen, civil rights activists, anti¬ 
poverty workers, and militant AFDC recipients—would in turn 
seek to energize a broad, loosely coordinated movement of variegated 
groups to arouse hundreds of thousands of poor people to demand 
aid. Rather than build organizational membership rolls, the purpose 
would be to build the welfare rolls. The main tactics should in¬ 
clude large-scale “welfare rights” information campaigns; the en¬ 
listing of influential people in the slums and ghettos, especially 
clergymen, to exhort potential welfare recipients to seek the aid that 
was rightfully theirs; and the mobilization of marches and demonstra¬ 
tions to build indignation and militancy among the poor. 

Our emphasis on mass mobilization with cadre organizations as 
the vehicle struck organizers as exceedingly manipulative. Their per¬ 
spective on organizing was imbued with values which they consid¬ 
ered democratic. The poor had a right to run their own organiza¬ 
tions, and to determine their own policies and strategies. Given this 
perspective, organizers defined two roles appropriate for themselves 
as outsiders in a poor people’s organization. First, they should act as 



285 The Welfare Rights Movement 

staff, subordinating themselves to policymaking bodies composed 
exclusively of the poor. As staff, they would contribute their technical 
skills to the work of the organization. They would, for example, 
provide information on the technical aspects of various issues with 
which the organization was dealing—in this case, the extremely com¬ 
plex rules and regulations of the welfare system. They would also 
run training programs in methods for dealing with the welfare 
bureaucracy—how to negotiate with welfare officials, or how to 
organize demonstrations. Second, they would cultivate those with 
leadership potential, tutoring them in techniques of leadership in 
the expectation that the role of the organizer would wither away. 
This is the model that NWRO and most of the local WROs sub¬ 
sequently came to espouse. (The subordination of organizers went 
so far that at national conventions they were barred from attending 
meetings where the elected recipient leaders from the various states 
convened to establish overall policy for the organization.) 


THE PROBLEM OF INCENTIVES 

Our approach, then, conflicted at several points with the perspec¬ 
tive of organizers. They were more sanguine than we about the 
capacity of the poor to exert influence through the regular channels 
of the political system, for they felt that the poor could be influential 
if they were brought together in a mass-based national organization. 
Furthermore they felt that a mobilizing strategy, as distinct from an 
organizing strategy, would give the poor insufficient control over 
resolution of the crisis that a welfare movement might succeed in 
creating. Finally, they were antagonistic to the idea of building 
“organizations of organizers” on the ground that it was a manipula¬ 
tive approach to the poor. 

But they were left with a problem of substantial importance. How 
could the poor be induced to affiliate and to participate on a con¬ 
tinuing basis in a welfare rights organization? What incentives could 
be offered? Despite all of the differences in perspective which we 
have noted, the paper we had been circulating held enormous inter¬ 
est for the participants in these early discussions and subsequently 
for organizers throughout the country who became involved in the 



286 


Poor People’s Movements 

welfare rights movement, because it appeared to provide an answer 
to that question. The answer was in one of the two types of data we 
had presented on benefit deprivation. Our main interest was in the 
estimates we had reached that only half of the eligible poor were 
on the rolls. But we had also shown that most of those already on 
the rolls did not receive all of the benefits to which they were en¬ 
titled under existing regulations. Regarding this second point, we 
said: 

Public assistance recipients in New York [and in many other states] 
are also entitled to receive “nonrecurring” grants for clothing, house¬ 
hold equipment and furniture—including washing machines, re¬ 
frigerators, beds and bedding, tables and chairs. It hardly needs to 
be noted that most impoverished families have grossly inadequate 
clothing and household furnishings . . . [but] almost nothing is 
spent on special grants in New York. In October 1965, a typical 
month, the Department of Welfare spent only $2.50 per recipient 
for heavy clothing and $ 1.30 for household furnishings. . . . Con¬ 
sidering the real needs of families, the successful demand for full 
entitlements could multiply these expenditures tenfold or more— 
and that would involve the disbursement of many millions of dol¬ 
lars indeed. 

Here, organizers thought, were the concrete incentives that might 
be employed to induce poor people to form groups and to affiliate 
in a national organization. If welfare departments, under the pres¬ 
sure of militant tactics by groups of recipients, could be forced to 
yield these “special grants” to large numbers of people, then the 
problem of how to attract the poor to a national organization ap¬ 
peared to have been solved. 

This conclusion, it must be said, received clear support from 
events which were already occurring. As stated previously, a modest 
number of welfare groups had begun to form in the mid-1960s, 
mainly under the sponsorship of antipoverty programs. These groups 
consisted of existing recipients. What seemed to be making group 
formation possible was the availability of special grants, for protests 
at welfare departments were succeeding in producing cash grants 
for the protesters. Moreover, the amounts of money received some¬ 
times ran as high as $1,000 per family; some families had been on the 
rolls for a number of years without ever having received special 
grants so that it took relatively large sums to bring them “up to 
standard.” The success of these special grant protests was decisive in 



287 The Welfare Rights Movement 

settling the question of the strategy which the movement would 
follow. It was a strategy that could produce groups and groups would 
be the foundation of a national organization. 

George Wiley also had the immediate and practical problem of 
dealing with the few welfare recipient groups that had already devel¬ 
oped. If he were to lead a movement, he felt that he had to negotiate 
the right to lead existing groups. That pragmatic problem also 
helped to determine the course which welfare agitation would fol¬ 
low, for these groups were made up of existing recipients who were 
focused on special grants. 

As it thus turned out, the strategy which NWRO, once formed, 
would pursue was dictated by the belief of organizers in the political 
efficacy of organizations of the poor. These beliefs were buttressed 
by evidence that a few recipient groups were already forming for 
the purpose of obtaining special grants, and by the promise that 
additional groups could be similarly organized. And if these groups 
were brought together in a “national union of welfare recipients,” 
George and others felt that the resulting poor people’s organization 
would be able to wield sufficient influence to compel a national 
income concession from Congress. 

The decision was thus made to undertake the formation of a 
national organization, with benefit campaigns for existing recipients 
as the inducement to organization building. It was a fateful de¬ 
cision. Benefit campaigns for existing recipients became NWRO’s 
exclusive strategy. As events would soon show, however, a strategy 
of organizing existing recipients into a national network based on 
inducements such as special grants could not be sustained. For a 
few years, campaigns to obtain special grants spread like brush fires 
across the country; hundreds of groups did form and many hundreds 
of millions of dollars in benefits were obtained from local welfare 
departments. But just as suddenly the groups diminished—first in 
size, then in number—until none were left. Why this happened is 
clear enough. For one thing, once people received a special grant, 
many saw no further purpose in affiliating with the organization; 
moreover a number of state legislatures eventually abolished special 
grant programs, thus undermining the organizing strategy by shut¬ 
ting off the flow of incentives. In other words, the central dilemma of 
mass-based, permanent organizing theory—how to sustain continu¬ 
ing participation in the absence of continuing inducements to par¬ 
ticipation—had not been solved. It was not a new dilemma. 



288 


Poor People’s Movements 

But this would all become clear only later. At the time our dif¬ 
ferences did not seem so large. While George and others were 
oriented toward developing a national union of welfare recipients, 
George did not reject the “crisis strategy”: mobilizing drives to 
double and treble the rolls could be mounted, he argued, once an 
organizational base of existing recipients had been created. 

We agreed that drives among existing recipients to insure that 
they received all of the benefits to which they were entitled were 
worth undertaking. In fact, even as these discussions were taking 
place, we were already involved in organizing such drives in New 
York City. While other organizers envisaged these benefit cam¬ 
paigns as a way of inducing people to form groups, we were focus¬ 
ing on the hundreds of millions of dollars that could be extracted 
from the welfare system, thus contributing to a welfare crisis. But 
whatever the motive, all of us could agree on that particular tactic 
as a starting point. Most important of all, our discussions were ani¬ 
mated by a belief that agitation among the poor around welfare 
issues had great potential for success, so that differences in strategy 
seemed less important than the imperative of action itself. In a 
word, the omens were good; everyone was eager to begin. 

And so we took the first steps toward creating a national organi¬ 
zation. As George was so fond of saying, “First you make a plan, and 
then you make it happen.” 


A Poor People's Organization Is Formed 

The plan, briefly, consisted of three steps: to raise money for several 
staff members and an office in Washington, D.C.; to announce that a 
“National Welfare Rights Organization” was being formed; and to 
initiate the process of building the local, state, and national structure 
of that organization. 

All things considered, these steps were taken with remarkable 
ease and rapidity. On May 23, 1966, George and a staff of four 
opened an office in Washington, D.C., called the Poverty/Rights 
Action Center. Some fifteen months later, in August 1967, a found¬ 
ing convention was held, and NWRO was officially formed, with 
George as its chief executive. In point of fact however, NWRO 
existed almost from the day George announced its formation, in 



289 The Welfare Rights Movement 

June 1966; the months between then and the founding convention 
in August 1967 were filled with a variety of activities oriented 
toward constructing and financing an intricate national structure. 


THE FORMATION OF THE NATIONAL 
WELFARE RIGHTS ORGANIZATION 

Of the problems entailed in the formation of NWRO, the most 
difficult was developing support and resources. To raise money for 
staff and a national office required that the idea of a “welfare rights 
organization” gain some degree of legitimacy among potential fund¬ 
ing sources and among prominent people who could influence 
funding sources. 

At first, George attempted to interest the Citizens’ Crusade Against 
Poverty (CCAP) in becoming the sponsor. Initiated by Walter 
Reuther of the United Automobile Workers, CCAP brought to¬ 
gether northern leaders—mainly unionists and officials in northern 
religious denominations—to counteract conservative groups who 
were seeking to limit the range and forcefulness of federal programs 
to ameliorate poverty. When George resigned as associate national 
director of CORE in February 1966, he took a job with CCAP. His 
first assignment was to build a coalition in support of minimum 
wage legislation in Congress. During the next few months, as he 
established contact with a variety of groups across the country, it 
became evident to him that groups were emerging in the northern 
ghettos and focusing on such issues as health care, education, the 
control of antipoverty programs, and, of course, the public welfare 
system. Since it appeared to him that these grassroots groups were 
dispersed, uncoordinated, and without an effective means of com¬ 
municating with one another, he proposed that the CCAP sponsor 
and fund the formation of a national agency devoted to performing 
these functions, with a special emphasis on welfare rights organizing. 
When this proposal was turned down, George made the decision 
to establish an independent office to perform the same functions, 
with welfare rights as its initial focus. 18 


is A detailed and accurate account of these events in the spring of 1966 can be found in 
Martin (1972, 75-85). 


290 


Poor People’s Movements 

By late May there was about $15,000 in hand. We had obtained 
$5,000 from a small family foundation; George had received $5,000 
from a wealthy contributor to the civil rights movement whom he 
had known from his CORE days, and he used his own savings of 
$5,000. With those funds, George and Edwin Day moved with their 
families to Washington and opened the P/RAC, making this an¬ 
nouncement to the press: 

Many activists have left major organizations and are scattered in 

a myriad of local programs across the country. The tenuous lines 

of communications which once connected them have been disrupted. 

We see ourselves as trying to service and help them develop a move¬ 
ment of the poor (Bailis, 15). 

At the outset, George still intended P/RAC to act as the national 
coordinating agency for a wide range of poor people’s organizations 
seeking to influence federal departments and Congress. The stated 
objectives were these: 

1. To develop nationwide support for major anti-poverty and civil 
rights measures (e.g., to press for “maximum feasible participa¬ 
tion” of the poor in the anti-poverty program, and to generate 
support for a guaranteed annual income). 

2. To develop nationwide support for significant local anti-poverty 
and civil rights movements. 

3. To provide surveillance and pressures on federal agencies han¬ 
dling programs designed to help the poor (e.g., to monitor activi¬ 
ties and policies of the OEO, the Department of Agriculture, the 
Department of Labor, HUD, HEW, etc.). 

4. To provide advice and assistance to local groups coming to 
Washington to lobby for support of their programs before federal 
agencies (Jackson and Johnson, 57). 

However broadly its objectives may have been defined, P/RAC 
soon focused on welfare rights, partly because of our series of dis¬ 
cussions, but much more importantly because welfare client groups 
were springing up by the summer of 1966 and thus George was 
prompted to move to weld them into a national body. 

The first major opportunity to advance the formation of a national 
welfare rights organization was provided by groups in Ohio who had 
joined together in the Ohio Committee for Adequate Welfare. In 
February 1966 organizers from Ohio decided they would stage a 
155-mile “Walk for Adequate Welfare” from Cleveland to the steps 



291 The Welfare Rights Movement 

of the state capitol in Columbus, hoping thereby to generate support 
for higher welfare payment levels in Ohio. George and a few others 
worked feverishly in the weeks before the march to spread word of 
it among welfare groups around the country and to stimulate these 
groups to hold supporting demonstrations. A meeting was called in 
Chicago on May 21 of organizers known to be working with welfare 
recipients, most of them from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Columbus, 
Cleveland, Syracuse, and especially New York City (where a city¬ 
wide organization of WROs had already formed). The results were 
encouraging and George announced to the press that demonstrations 
would occur across the country on June 30, the final day of the walk. 

On June 20 Reverend Paul Younger and Edith Doering, paid by 
the Cleveland Council of Churches to organize around welfare issues, 
led about forty welfare recipients and sympathizers out of Cleveland 
on the first lap of the 155-mile march to Columbus, there to present 
complaints about public welfare to Governor Rhodes. As the 
marchers passed through cities and towns on the route, local re¬ 
cipients, ministers, social workers, and other sympathetic citizens, 
sometimes hundreds of them, fell in line for a short distance. On 
the morning of June 30, when they finally reached Columbus, the 
forty marchers were joined by busloads of recipients from all over 
Ohio, and some 2,000 protesters led by George paraded down Broad 
Street to the capitol to argue the case against Ohio’s welfare system. 

Simultaneous demonstrations occurred elsewhere. In New York 
2,000 picketers, most of them recipients, marched in the hot sun 
while their children played in City Hall Park. And in fifteen other 
cities, including Baltimore, Washington, Los Angeles, Boston, Louis¬ 
ville, Chicago, Trenton, and San Francisco, some 2,500 people in 
groups of 25 to 250 demonstrated against “the welfare.” 

The demonstrations received encouraging coverage in the press, 
including a statement issued by George announcing “the birth of a 
movement.” Shortly afterwards George called for a national meeting 
of organizers and recipient leaders to lay the basis for a national 
organization of welfare rights groups. The meeting convened in 
Chicago on August 6 and 7; some one hundred people attended, both 
recipients and organizers. The recipients were from groups that had 
already formed, ranging from the Mothers for Adequate Welfare in 
Boston to the Mothers of Watts; from Chicago’s Welfare Union of 
the West Side Organization composed of unemployed black men, 
to the Committee to Save the Unemployed Fathers of eastern 
Kentucky. The organizers were members of Students for a Demo- 



292 


Poor People’s Movements 

cratic Society, church people, and, most prominently, VISTA and 
other antipoverty program workers. The conferees voted to estab¬ 
lish a National Coordinating Committee of Welfare Rights Groups 
composed of one welfare recipient from each of the eleven states 
where welfare organizing had already led to the establishment of 
groups. This body was mandated to determine policy for the organi¬ 
zation, to make recommendations for the further development of 
a national structure, and to promote and coordinate a series of 
nationwide welfare campaigns in the fall of 1966. These campaigns 
were intended to 

. . . feature demands for the right [of welfare groups] to represent 
recipients before welfare administrations and at hearings; the right 
to organize and bargain collectively on behalf of recipients, and 
. . demand benefits now being illegally denied recipients. The drive 
will include tactics such as pickets, sit-ins, school boycotts, and the 
pressing of demands for hearings and court actions. Violations of 
the law practiced by welfare administrations in denying benefits 
to recipients, invading the privacy of recipients, and failing to 
grant fair hearings will be exposed in the campaign (Jackson and 
Johnson, 59). 

From the perspective of national organization building, this meet¬ 
ing was a huge success. George’s leadership was acknowledged; his 
proposal for a national coordinating body composed of recipient 
leaders was widely and enthusiastically accepted by the representa¬ 
tives of disparate groups of recipients and organizers; and local 
organizations agreed to join in nationally sponsored campaigns. 
A national poor people’s organization was clearly in the making. 

This meeting, like others to follow in the first three years, was 
characterized by spirit, militancy, anger, and hope, which bordered 
on pandemonium. The chairpersons of the various sessions could 
not hold to the agendas or maintain parliamentary order. People 
just rose up from their seats—organizers and recipients alike—and 
lined up at the microphones, as many as twenty or thirty at a time. 
One after another they condemned “the welfare” for its abuses: for 
grant levels so low that nothing was left after the rent was paid, for 
capricious and punitive rejections and terminations, for invasions 
of homes, for insults to dignity. The early meetings were like rallies, 
full of indignation and full of joy that the occasion had finally come 
for the people to rise up against the source of their indignation. 

New groups formed rapidly, mainly in the densely packed ghettos 



293 The Welfare Rights Movement 

of the midwestem and northeastern cities. The civil rights struggle 
in the North provided a context that encouraged group formation, 
as this personal account reveals: 19 

When I first came on welfare, I was ashamed, because society has 
taught us to be ashamed . . . you are taught it from childhood. 
We were taught that welfare was begging, charity ... so I hid it. 

I heard about the Milwaukee Welfare Rights Organization through 
a cousin of mine. She kept trying to get me to go to these meetings 
with her and I said, “No, I'd never go to anything like that. . . .” 

In the meantime, Milwaukee was having civil rights marches . . . 
and my kids were growing up ... so they told me that they were 
going on the marches for civil rights. Well, I was afraid of those 
kinds of things . . . but when the kids decided that they were 
going ... I had to go with them. ... I noticed that when we 
went on the marches, we were the ones being fired upon with 
rocks and bricks and sticks, but it was as if we were doing the 
provoking when they put it on the news. So I started reading the 
black papers. I started reading things in a different light. . . . Then 
I joined this [welfare rights] organization . . . (Milwaukee Welfare 
Rights Organization, 25-26). 

NWRO stimulated this development all the more by producing and 
distributing thousands of brochures entitled “Build Organization!" 
The workers in antipoverty programs were especially responsive to 
the call to organize. Perhaps three-quarters of all welfare rights 
organizers were antipoverty workers, many of them VISTAs. 

As client insurgency spread, further steps were taken to consolidate 
a national structure. In December 1966 the National Coordinating 
Committee met in Chicago and designated P/RAC as the head¬ 
quarters of the National Welfare Rights Organization, thus further 
buttressing George’s claim to leadership of the mushrooming wel¬ 
fare rights phenomenon. In addition a conference was called for the 
following February in Washington, D.C. More than 350 recipients 
and organizers were attracted to this meeting, representing some 
200 WROs in seventy cities and twenty-six states. A national legisla¬ 
tive program was developed to be presented to HEW and to Con- 


19 This account of the process by which civil rights demonstrations helped influence an 
AFDC mother to become a NWRO participant actually refers to a slightly later period 
in the 1960s. The slight time difference is irrelevant, for if accounts were available 
from an earlier period, they would also reveal the important role of the civil rights 
struggle in the formation of NWRO. 



294 


Poor People's Movements 

gress. Workshops on a variety of subjects were held: “How to Form 
a Group”; “Staging a Demonstration”; “Raising Money”; “Tech¬ 
niques of Lobbying”; and the like. Plans were laid for a nationwide 
series of “special needs” campaigns (i.e., campaigns to obtain grants 
of money for clothing and household furnishings) to be conducted 
throughout the country during the spring, and to culminate in 
simultaneous local demonstrations once again on June 30. 

Special grant campaigns followed throughout the spring and 
millions of dollars were obtained by recipients. As planned, simul¬ 
taneous demonstrations once again occurred on June 30 and it fairly 
could be said that a national organization had come into being. Tim 
Sampson, who subsequently became NWRO’s associate director, as¬ 
sumed the major role in promoting these nationwide organizing 
campaigns. 

Meanwhile the National Coordinating Committee had recon¬ 
vened in April to adopt the membership and delegate rules that 
would lay the basis for a formal national structure. (Any group, it 
was decided, of at least twenty-five recipients that forwarded annual 
dues of $1 per person to the national office was entitled to elect a 
delegate to future national conventions.) 20 The official founding 
convention took place in August 1967 in Washington, D.C. It is 
a measure of the extent to which local groups already conformed 
to the membership, dues-paying, and delegate-designating rules laid 
down by the National Coordinating Committee that 178 delegates 
and alternates representing approximately seventy-five WROs in 
forty-five cities and twenty-one states attended to adopt a constitu¬ 
tion, elect national officers, and endorse a set of goals, all to form 
the National Welfare Rights Organization—the first national relief 
organization since the Great Depression. Many other welfare rights 
groups existed and some of them sent representatives to the con¬ 
ference as well. But they had yet to conform with national rules 
(electing officers, paying dues, etc.) and thus were barred from 
official participation. In time most would conform and affiliate. 

Briefly, the overall structure consisted of a National Convention 
which was to convene every two years; it was to establish broad policy 
and elect nine officers who would compose an Executive Committee. 


20 For every 25 to 49 members, one delegate and one alternate; for 50 to 99 members, 
three delegates and three alternates; for each additional 100 members, one additional 
delegate and alternate. 



295 The Welfare Rights Movement 

During the off years, a National Conference would be held to 
formulate policy. Between meetings of these bodies, the National 
Coordinating Committee, which consisted of one delegate and one 
alternate from each state affiliated with NWRO, together with the 
members of the Executive Committee, would meet to establish policy. 
Generally speaking, the Executive Committee was to meet about 
eight times annually and the National Coordinating Committee 
about four times. NWRO rules required that all groups in each 
state convene to create a roughly parallel state structure and to vote 
for a state delegate and alternate to the National Coordinating Com¬ 
mittee. In large cities such as New York similar coordinating and 
delegate bodies were also created. In a very short time, in other 
words, NWRO had developed a nationwide, statewide, and some¬ 
times citywide system of structures. 

As the membership data in the accompanying table reveal, how¬ 
ever, this intricate national structure was created before a national 
mass base had emerged. In 1967, when the details of the structure 
were being completed, NWRO had 5,000 dues-paying families. In 
1969 when the membership base reached its peak, about 22,000 
persons paid dues: 

The states with the largest membership were, in descending order. 
New York, California, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Massa¬ 
chusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, and Illinois. When broken down by 
cities, New York City had by far the largest membership; there 
were more members in Brooklyn than in any other city in the 
country. Boston groups had the second largest total membership, 
while Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago completed the list of the 
five top cities (Bailis, 11). 

But, distribution of members aside, the point is that NWRO’s dues- 
paying membership never exceeded the level of 22,000 reached in 
1969; thereafter the membership rolls declined rapidly. 

NWRO’s inability to enlarge its base, or to sustain the modest 
base it had succeeded in developing, was first and most dramatically 
revealed in New York. In 1967, 51 percent of NWRO’s membership 
was located in New York; when the national membership doubled 
in the next year, the proportion of the total membership contributed 
by New York dropped to 17 percent, which meant that the absolute 
number of members dropped as well. By the spring of 1969 the 
New York organization had collapsed. That was an ominous sign, 
to say the least. What it revealed is that NWRO’s organizing strategy 



Poor People's Movements 296 

could not overcome problems of organizational maintenance. More¬ 
over precisely the same problems of maintenance beset the Massa¬ 
chusetts organization shortly after the New York organization de¬ 
clined; by 1970 the Massachusetts organization had also collapsed. 
Since New York City and Boston were by far the most important 
urban strongholds of the movement and since their organizing 
strategy was being emulated throughout the country, we turn to the 
question of why these organizations did not survive (and why dozens 
of other WROs which adopted a similar strategy also eventually 
failed). 


Approximate Membership of National Welfare 
Rights Organization (Number of Family Heads 
Paying Dues) 


PLACE 

1967 

1968 

196921 

US. 

5,000 

10,000 

22,500 

N.Y. City 

2,550 

5,870 

4,030 

Brooklyn 

1,350 

3,370 

2,440 

Queens 

100 

380 

330 

Manhattan 

1,070 

1,400 

500 

Bronx 

30 

720 

760 


The Problem of Maintaining a 
Mass Membership 

Our analysis of NWRO’s demise has been undertaken in four parts. 
In the present section, the problem of maintaining a mass member¬ 
ship is considered. Then we examine, in turn, the problems created 
by the elaborate internal leadership structure on which the organiza¬ 
tion came to rely; the problems resulting from external leadership 
incentives; and, finally, the problems flowing from the ebbing of 
mass unrest in American society toward the late 1960s. Together 


21 An internal NWRO document prepared to calculate delegate strength for the con¬ 
vention in 1969 revealed that there were 523 local groups throughout the United States, 
of which 376 had the required twenty-five dues-paying members (Jackson and Johnson, 
116). Whitaker also confirms these figures (180). 



297 The Welfare Rights Movement 

these problems eventually destroyed the organization. In the interim 
before that happened, however, the organization was slowly trans¬ 
formed: political beliefs became more conventional, militancy dimin¬ 
ished, and the membership base dwindled. 


BUILDING ORGANIZATION BY SOLVING 
INDIVIDUAL GRIEVANCES 

Welfare rights organizing throughout the country relied primarily 
on solving the grievances of existing recipients as an organizing 
technique. This approach usually worked to build groups, for griev¬ 
ances were legion. Families were often capriciously denied access 
to benefits, or failed to receive checks, or received less than they 
were entitled to, or were arbitrarily terminated, or were abused and 
demeaned by welfare workers. The promise that such grievances 
could be solved brought recipients together. 

Grievances were dealt with in a variety of ways. In the beginning 
organizers often performed the grievance work, thereby demonstrat¬ 
ing that the complexities of welfare regulations could be mastered 
and that welfare personnel could be made to give in. 22 Gradually 
some welfare recipients were schooled in the regulations and in 
techniques of representing other recipients. Some groups placed 
tables in welfare waiting rooms or on the streets outside with signs 
announcing the offer of assistance to people who were experiencing 
difficulty in the centers. Some of the more structured groups estab¬ 
lished “grievance committees” to which families with problems were 
referred. 

The most effective tactic was to stage group actions on grievances. 
A group of recipients descended on the welfare center to hold a 
demonstration, demanding that all grievances be settled before the 
group left, with the threat that a sit-in would follow if the demand 
were not met. These actions generally succeeded, for with the 
ghettos of the cities seething, welfare officials feared confrontations. 
Organizers and recipients understood this vulnerability and capital- 


22 An interesting discussion on the role of organizers in demonstrating that welfare 
personnel could be made to yield is contained in the accounts of welfare rights in 
Mississippi (Kurzman). 




298 


Poor People's Movements 

ized on it. If welfare officials tried to cope with demonstrators by 
saying that some of the grievances would be dealt with immediately 
but that others would have to wait, the demonstrators often refused 
to leave. They sensed the importance of standing together and they 
were alert to the dangers of being dealt with one by one in back 
offices removed from the tumult of the waiting rooms. Organizers 
and leaders usually tried to reinforce this intuition by reaching 
agreements in advance that no one would leave until everyone’s 
problems had been solved; during the demonstration, group pressure 
reinforced that agreement. This principle heightened solidarity, 23 
helping to engender the feeling that the welfare of each depended 
upon the welfare of all. It encouraged people to act altruistically, to 
act at the expense of their immediate self-interest. And, of course, 
this emphasis on the group acting together heightened the feeling 
that group struggle was effective. These general observations are 
corroborated by studies in various locales, as in the following ex¬ 
ample from Massachusetts: 

When Massachusetts WRO grievance workers came across cases in 
which the prospects of success were particularly dim, they invited 
the member to accompany them to the next demonstration at her 
welfare office. In the heat of welfare office confrontations, many 
members proved to be more willing to help their fellow members 
than one would have guessed. ... In part, they may have realized 
that they too might be involved in a similar situation in the future 
and would like others to pitch in and help them. But for the most 
part, the decision to stay and fight for others after one's own 
demands were met appeared to represent a feeling of “community" 
emerging in demonstrations. In the heat of the confrontation situa¬ 
tion, a high proportion of recipients appeared to derive satisfaction 
from declaring their solidarity with others involved in heated strug¬ 
gle with “the common enemy" and from seeing caseworkers back¬ 
ing down regardless of whether they personally gained tangible 
benefits or not (Bailis, 64). 

The objective of these activities for most organizers and recipient 
leaders, as well as for the national staff, was to expand membership 
affiliation. In effect this meant insisting that recipients join a group, 


23 It also produced outraged responses from welfare directors, often in the form of 
press releases or internal memoranda to welfare staff members declaring that “our 
clients” are being “coerced” or “used” or “manipulated” or “exploited.” 




299 The Welfare Rights Movement 

pay dues, and accept a membership card before their grievances 
would be attended to. The reasoning was that by conditioning assist¬ 
ance on affiliation, stable group membership would result. For the 
most part organizers and local leaders followed this dictum: 

People who come in to the city-wide offices and want help are 
first asked to join DMWRO (Detroit Metropolitan Welfare Rights 
Organization). They join up on a group basis according to where 
they live. They are required to pay two dollars on the spot and 
their name is forwarded to the local group which is located in 
their area. One dollar goes to the local group for NWRO dues 
and the other dollar goes to DMWRO. They are also told when 
the next meeting is scheduled and where it is to be held. Then we 
see what we can do about their welfare problem if they have one 
(Martin, 158). 

However, WROs did not become permanent. Nor is there any 
evidence that groups which strictly followed the procedure of con¬ 
ditioning help on affiliation, as against those which did not, lasted 
any longer; most lasted a year or two at best, whatever the organiz¬ 
ing techniques. There are a number of reasons why this turned out 
to be the case. 

First, most families who benefitted from a grievance action then 
dropped out of the group simply because they no longer needed 
assistance. To be sure, recipients returned from time to time as 
new grievances arose, but most did not participate in any con¬ 
tinuous way in the life of the organization. “The basic problem with 
grievance work was that a settled grievance, like other fulfilled 
needs, left no further incentive to contribute to the group’' (Bailis, 
65). Moreover, as the welfare rights organizations created a body of 
recipients who were experienced in dealing with the welfare system, 
many of these individuals found that they no longer required the 
aid of the group in solving their individual problems or those of 
their friends and neighbors. They simply acted on their own, a 
circumstance that continually depleted the ranks of organized groups. 

Second, grievance work required an enormous investment of time 
and staff or recipient effort: 

A recipient called the office (in Chicago) and said her caseworker 
had cut her welfare off. I called the caseworker and told her what 
she did was illegal and asked if she had heard of the December 1969 
law that recipients could not be cut off without notification. This 
was the Golliday decision. The caseworker said she would talk to her 



300 


Poor People's Movements 

supervisor. I went by the recipient’s house and we went to the 
welfare office to file an appeal and talk to the caseworker. The 
caseworker was sorry but she couldn’t do anything. She said she 
cut the aid because the woman’s rent receipts had different signa¬ 
tures. The next day I got a VISTA lawyer to tell the caseworker 
about the new law. The caseworker still didn’t do anything and 
the lawyer told her he would go to court. Then the caseworker 
asked him to talk to the district office supervisor. The lawyer did 
and the supervisor released the woman’s check (Martin, 156). 

Such work was also extremely tedious. There were satisfactions, to 
be sure, especially those deriving from the sense that one has ren¬ 
dered a service to another human being, and there were recipients 
who gained deep gratification from the effort. But on the whole 
the recipients who enjoyed this work were not numerous, and as 
the months and years dragged by it became increasingly difficult to 
sustain grievance activities except by continually training new cadres 
to replace those who wearied and dropped out. 

Grievance activities were perhaps less tedious when the entire 
group was involved. But this method literally absorbed the whole 
of the group’s energies and resources. However useful this strategy 
may have been in maintaining solidarity and in securing favorable 
responses from the welfare system, it nevertheless severely limited 
the scale of grievance work and thus the success of organizing itself. 
Consequently groups showed little expansion of membership once 
a level of fifty to one hundred had been reached. 

It might also be noted that grievance work was a natural avenue 
to positions of leadership, for serving others provided a way of build¬ 
ing a constituency. But once the grievance worker had succeeded in 
being elected to office, she usually came to be preoccupied with the 
responsibilities and satisfactions of that office. And since the leader¬ 
ship of these groups tended to be stable, new grievance workers 
could not similarly entertain the hope of winning office through 
service to others. This circumstance made the drudgery of grievance 
work all the less attractive. 

Finally, one consequence of the grievance strategy was the gradual 
evolution of formal arrangements with welfare departments for the 
solving of these problems. Just how this came about will be taken 
up in a subsequent section. It is sufficient to say here that once such 
arrangements developed, groups needed to rely less and less upon 
collective action in order to secure responses from the welfare system. 
The consequence was to subdue militancy, to create recipient leaders 



301 The Welfare Rights Movement 

who had a large investment in the maintenance of their privileged 
relationship to the welfare system, and to diminish efforts to organize 
new members. 

In summary, individual grievance strategies produced a rapid 
proliferation of WROs across the country in the period between 
1966 and 1970. But these groups rarely exceeded one hundred mem¬ 
bers. Moreover the membership of these core groups showed high 
turnover. Thus individual grievance work failed to build a mass 
membership. 


BUILDING ORGANIZATION BY SOLVING 
COLLECTIVE GRIEVANCES 

If individual grievance work did not appear to have the potential 
for building a mass membership, action on collective grievances 
did appear to, at least for a while. These actions were based on the 
regulations of some welfare departments which provided special 
grants, in addition to regular food and rent grants, for clothing 
and household furnishings as needed. Few people knew about these 
provisions, even fewer applied for them, and still fewer received 
them. Since these were forms of assistance for which large numbers 
of recipients were ostensibly eligible, they presented the possibility 
that collective actions could be mounted to solve hundreds and per¬ 
haps thousands of grievances at one time, thus bringing large num¬ 
bers of families into local WROs with a minimum of organizing 
investment. 

Experiments with this form of collective grievance action were 
first conducted in 1965 by a few organizers affiliated with Mobiliza¬ 
tion for Youth on New York’s Lower East Side. 24 They were ex¬ 
tremely successful: when confronted with fifty or one hundred re¬ 
cipients demanding special grants, the district welfare offices in 
New York City conceded and checks were issued. By the spring of 
1967 the tactic had spread to most of the antipoverty agencies in 
the city and to some settlement houses and churches as well. Literally 


24 See Rabagliati and Birnbaum, and Birnbaum and Gilman, for a description of 
Mobilization for Youth's campaigns. 




302 


Poor People’s Movements 

thousands of people joined in special grant demonstrations. As these 
actions multiplied, a central office was created to stimulate the growth 
of more demonstrations throughout the city and the New York 
City-wide Coordinating Committee of Welfare Groups was formed. 25 

For organizers the main purpose of these campaigns was to build 
a permanent organization of welfare recipients. Thus the campaigns 
were intended to “enable local groups to establish their organiza¬ 
tional validity among their constituents, and to establish their role 
as the representative of individual clients at the local welfare center 
.. .” (Birnbaum and Gilman, 1). This way of thinking partly reflected 
a concern with controlling the outcome of a welfare crisis. As one 
organizer put it, “Without ‘client power/ when the system is bank¬ 
rupt, we are still dependent on those in power to establish a new 
system” (quoted in Sardell, 47). 

The special grant campaigns and the formation of the City-wide 
organization generated enormous excitement among activists and 
AFDC recipients. Weekly meetings called by City-wide were at¬ 
tended by larger and larger numbers of recipients, antipoverty orga¬ 
nizers, and antipoverty attorneys. At these sessions the spirit of a move¬ 
ment began to develop; training sessions in the details of conducting 
special grant campaigns were conducted, and plans for demonstra¬ 
tions—either simultaneously in dozens of district offices or jointly at 
the central welfare offices—were agreed upon. In addition tens of 
thousands of kits of special grant campaign literature were distrib¬ 
uted—the main piece being a mimeographed checklist of the items 
of clothing and household furnishings people were supposed to have 
(according to welfare regulations). These checklists were distributed 
by local organizers, people filled them out and returned them, and 
they were then bundled up and presented to district welfare office 
directors in the course of countless demonstrations. 

As new individuals or groups heard about the campaigns and 
made inquiries of City-wide, they were generally advised to proceed 
in the same way: 

City-wide strategists developed a formula for local groups to use 
in their organizing efforts. Groups’ members were to leaflet outside 
welfare centers and to talk to clients about welfare entitlements. 
Recipients would be encouraged to join local groups and to attend 


25 See Jackson and Johnson, and Sardell. In these sources the City-wide special grant 
campaigns are described in detail. 




303 The Welfare Rights Movement 

meetings where “welfare rights” and special grants would be dis¬ 
cussed. Special grant forms would be filled out and the group would 
return to the welfare center with the forms and hold demonstra¬ 
tions for immediate action on the grants (Sardell, 55). 

Recipients were also encouraged in this period to file a “fair hearing” 
request form with their special grant form. This put the welfare 
department on notice that if the special grant request were denied, 
justification for that decision would have to be made at a hearing 
held before a state official. In 1964 there had been fourteen fair hear¬ 
ings throughout the entire state; sixteen in 1965 and twenty in 1966. 
However, under the impact of City-wide’s fair hearing strategy in 
1967, 4,233 fair hearing forms were filed: 

In 1967 there was a virtual explosion in fair hearings requests. This 
explosion resulted primarily from the activities of the organized 
client movement. Almost all new requests were from New York 
City. . . . This increase in requests led to the appointment of four 
additional hearings officers and, in December 1967, the opening 
of the New York City Office of Fair Hearings. Clients were repre¬ 
sented at the hearings by lawyers, volunteer law students, and some 
trained lay advocates. . . . Over 3,000 hearings were scheduled 
between September and January. However, 90 percent of these 
hearings never occurred. Oftentimes, local centers contacted clients 
before the dates scheduled for their fair hearings and granted their 
requests for special grants. In one-half of the cases in which hearings 
were actually held, clients received substantially all of their requests, 
while most of the remaining clients received at least partial grants 
(Jackson and Johnson, 114). 

By the late fall of 1967 this organizing formula had produced a 
mass movement among welfare recipients in New York’s ghettos 
and barrios. 

The militancy in this period was high. AFDC mothers (often 
with their children in tow) staged hundreds of sit-ins and confronta¬ 
tions at the district welfare offices in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, 
and the Bronx. These local demonstrations ranged from 25 to 500 
persons. When demonstrations at the central welfare offices were 
called, from 500 to 2,000 appeared. Social workers, welfare workers, 
and other sympathizers sometimes joined in. Sit-ins, which often 
accompanied the demonstrations, sometimes lasted for several days. 
Scores of arrests occurred, although generally city officials were loath 
to arrest recipients in those turbulent times; instead, they issued 
checks. By the spring and summer of 1968, when the special grant 



304 


Poor People’s Movements 

campaigns reached their zenith, the welfare department had found 
it necessary to establish a “war room” in its central offices filled with 
telephones and staff members whose job it was to keep abreast of the 
constant demonstrations taking place in the city’s several dozen 
district offices. 

George was so impressed with the organization-building potential 
of these campaigns that the national organization began to push 
this strategy across the country. In the spring of 1967 the national 
office prepared special kits of colorfully printed materials to be used 
by local groups (“defend your family!”; “more money now!”), and 
worked vigorously to promote campaigns. Soon there were national 
campaigns in the late summer for school clothing, in the fall for 
winter clothing, in the spring for Easter clothing or school gradua¬ 
tion clothing. Household furnishing campaigns also proliferated, 
spurred in part because so few recipients had adequate bedding and 
other items. 

However, Massachusetts was the only state, other than New York, 
where genuinely large-scale campaigns resulted. 26 Millions of dollars 
resulted from the campaigns in Massachusetts beginning in the 
summer of 1968. “Welfare Department figures indicated in the 
Boston area alone, $250,000 was disbursed in July, $600,000 in 
August, and $3,000,000 in September” (Fiske, 37, 96). When the 
Massachusetts commissioner of welfare was called before a legisla¬ 
tive committee in mid-August to justify this enlarging outflow of 
welfare monies, he replied: “If anyone had been at Roxbury 
Crossing in June 1967, when a riot occurred, he would have noticed 
some of the same elements here at the welfare office on July 30, 1968” 
(quoted in Fiske, 34). Still, there was considerable difficulty getting 
checks issued. One welfare center issued checks and then voided 
them; another placed police blockades before its doors, allowing only 
ten recipients to enter at a time; other offices simply shut down in 
response to client turbulence. The militancy of the demonstrations 
also intensified: 

Thus . . . when fifty recipients returned to Roxbury Crossing Cen¬ 
ter (in November) twelve telephones were ripped out, eight offices 
were “ransacked,” social workers were “verbally abused,” and one 
was shoved against the wall. The nonprofessional union members 


26 The most detailed descriptions of the special grant campaigns in Massachusetts are 
contained in Fiske and in Bailis. 




305 The Welfare Rights Movement 

were instructed to walk-out under police escort; forty social workers 
left immediately for the State Welfare Headquarters to protest their 
harassment; and the police escorted the director out of the center 
at 12:30 p.m. Thus another office closed early for the day (Fiske, 56). 

The demonstrations throughout Massachusetts were the most con¬ 
sistently militant of any in the country. One demonstration in 
Springfield led to a riot. Fiske again quotes an organizer: 

When the director announced that people would be arrested if 
they didn’t leave the Center, the protesting recipients asked the 
students to go outside. Once outside, there were no bullhorns and 
no one directing the masses. When the paddy wagon arrived, the 
protestors outside thought the recipients inside were being ar¬ 
rested and, consequently, started rocking the paddy wagon. The 
police started shoving people inside and then drove through the 
crowds at a dangerous speed. The crowd became enraged and 
started throwing rocks and bottles at the wagon (89). 

At that moment, the Springfield riot began, and Bill Pastreich, 
MWRO’s chief organizer, was arrested for the twelfth time, with 
bail set at $3,000. 


THE ABOLITION OF SPECIAL GRANTS 

As special grants campaigns mushroomed throughout the country, 
local and state governments began to respond by instituting “flat 
grant” systems. It was an inevitable development. By this simple 
device the rising costs of special grant disbursements were curbed 
and the welfare rights organizations were severely crippled. New 
York State was first to institute this “reform,” for a vast reservoir 
of potential claimants still existed to be tapped, posing what the 
New York Times editorially called a “threat to [New York City’s] 
treasury.” To keep the lid on welfare costs welfare officials in New 
York City began to redesign the special grant system, proposing to 
“reform” it by substituting an “automatic grant” of $100 per year 
payable in quarterly installments of $25 to each recipient. 

In June the State Board of Social Welfare approved the plan, 
allowing it to go into effect on September 1. The reasons were 
candidly given when Hugh R. Jones, chairman of the State Board of 
Social Welfare, announced that the automatic grant reform would 



306 


Poor People’s Movements 

both “stabilize outgoing expenditures” and “very seriously handi¬ 
cap” the welfare recipients’ organization. Throughout the summer 
and fall discussions were held among City-wide WRO leaders and 
advisors to develop a strategy to counter these developments. Three 
options were considered at one time or another. One was to con¬ 
tinue to mount militant demonstrations in the local centers to keep 
the welfare system in chaos and to threaten the possibility of wider 
chaos in the ghettos if the plan were implemented. This strategy was 
attempted, but half-heartedly. A second option—one which we pro¬ 
posed—was to mount a “spend-the-rent” campaign. By spending 
their rent welfare recipients could circumvent the income reduction 
represented by the automatic grant; what the city and state saved, 
the clients would more than recoup. In the heat of the moment this 
option was approved, but the recipient leadership did nothing to 
implement it. For a few weeks the threat of a rent strike campaign 
served certain rhetorical purposes. 

Instead, the recipient leadership opted for a lobbying campaign 
in Albany, the state capital. In large part this decision evolved 
because of promises of support by various middle-class groups in the 
city: some church confederations, several upper-middle-class women’s 
civic groups, women’s peace groups, a confederation of settlement 
houses, and the like. Throughout the fall of 1968 City-wide mobilized 
for the lobbying campaign which culminated in a “bus caravan” to 
Albany where political leaders generally avoided meeting with re¬ 
cipient delegations. The lobbying campaign was put together at 
great expense of time and money and totally consumed the resources 
of the City-wide organization. The response by the legislature was to 
cut grant levels about 10 percent. 

The last major protest demonstration occurred on April 15, 1969. 
About 5,000 persons, most of them welfare workers, antipoverty 
staff, students, and other sympathizers, assembled in Central Park for 
a rally and then marched down Fifth Avenue. On 42nd Street be¬ 
tween Fifth and Madison Avenues, the demonstrators sat down, clog¬ 
ging traffic for several hours, and Hulbert James, New York’s chief 
welfare rights organizer, was pulled down from a lamp post from 
which he was addressing the crowd and charged with inciting to riot. 
That demonstration was the end of the resistance campaign in New 
York. By then local WROs were already weakened and the relief 
centers had been largely abandoned. The course of events was no 
different in Massachusetts: 



307 The Welfare Rights Movement 

The relationship between the institution of the flat grant and 
welfare rights organizing was treated fairly candidly in Massachu¬ 
setts. The MWRO activities received considerable coverage in the 
newspapers and on radio and television. . . . Many people in 
Massachusetts apparently associated welfare rights demonstrations 
with rising welfare costs and assumed the former caused the latter, 
all of which served to make welfare an increasingly controversial 
public issue. A number of state legislators gained publicity by in¬ 
vestigating alleged welfare fraud and by introducing bills to cut 
welfare costs. The governor made his ability to resist welfare demon¬ 
strators and his institution of the flat grant a major issue in his 
re-election campaign in 1970. Three of his radio advertisements 
mentioned welfare demonstrators and one of them was entirely 
devoted to an explanation of the flat grant (Bailis, 142). 

As in New York, the Massachusetts welfare rights group joined to¬ 
gether with sympathetic liberal groups in the Massachusetts Welfare 
Coalition. This coalition was composed mainly of religious and social 
welfare groups and lacked sufficient influence to block the flat grant 
decision. The welfare rights organization in Massachusetts soon fell 
into disarray. Other states also instituted flat grants in this period; it 
was a simple and successful way to simultaneously undermine 
organizing among the poor and curb welfare costs. 


MOBILIZING VERSUS ORGANIZING 

There was one major difference in the approach to building welfare 
rights groups in New York and Massachusetts, a difference about 
which much was made by organizers throughout the country in this 
period. In New York, little stress was placed on creating dues-paying 
groups (except in Brooklyn under the leadership of organizer Rhoda 
Linton); the opposite was the case in Massachusetts. George strongly 
favored the latter procedure. The issue first arose in 1967 after 
NWRO was officially formed and a program of nationwide special 
grant campaigns had been announced. George's view was that wel¬ 
fare recipients should not be afforded access to special grant infor¬ 
mation, forms, and assistance unless they first joined a group and 
paid dues. A number of us in New York opposed this requirement, 
believing that the impact on the welfare system would be much 



308 


Poor People's Movements 

greater if information about the availability of the special grants was 
disseminated as widely as possible through antipoverty agencies, 
settlement houses, churches, and civil rights groups. In New York, 
our view prevailed, and the subsequent campaigns were much looser 
affairs than occurred in most other places. 

In Massachusetts, however, a different model of organizing de¬ 
veloped. It became known widely in welfare rights circles as the 
“Boston Model,” and it was just as widely emulated throughout the 
country. Strict emphasis was placed on formal group affiliation as a 
prerequisite to receiving any form of assistance. Sometimes, for 
example, special grant applications were not distributed to re¬ 
cipients until they were actually on the welfare premises as part of 
a demonstration. It was assumed that stable, enduring groups evolved 
from this approach. However, the detailed inquiry by Bailis of 
events in Massachusetts reveals that stable groups did not in fact 
develop. Often they did not survive from one special grant cam¬ 
paign to another: 

The Boston Model organizing drives almost invariably produced 
successful first meetings and first confrontations. But few of the local 
groups created in those drives were able to maintain their momen¬ 
tum—or their membership—for very long. Despite a spectacular 
birth and a vigorous youth consisting of well-attended meetings 
and militant demonstrations, the typical MWRO affiliate soon 
moved into a period of doldrums, marked by a lingering death. 
The life cycle was a relatively short one. . . . For most of its history, 
the MWRO was able to disguise its inability to maintain local group 
strength by concentrating its efforts upon repeated Boston Model 
organizing drives and thus constantly created new groups to replace 
those that were falling by the wayside. These new groups helped 
to maintain the MWRO membership rolls, to provide the bulk 
of the participants in statewide demonstrations, and to keep the 
welfare rights movement in the headlines (55). 

Moreover, Bailis asserts that “most MWRO affiliates were moribund 
long before the institution of the flat grant” in Massachusetts (60). 

The “Boston Model” required a much greater investment of 
organizing resources than was true of the “mobilizing model” fol¬ 
lowed in New York. MWRO successfully attracted a large number 
of students to perform organizing tasks; it also had a VISTA training 
contract, and the VISTAs were trained in welfare organizing. In 
New York, there were relatively fewer organizers. But no matter: 
WROs did not persist in either state, and that is the main point. 



309 


The Welfare Rights Movement 


The Consequences of Internal 
Leadership Structures 

The collapse of welfare rights organizing in New York and Massa¬ 
chusetts was deeply troubling, both because some of the nation’s 
most liberal political leaders held office in those states, and because 
the organized recipient bases in both states were NWRO’s largest. 
If a strategy of building a mass membership by extracting special 
grants from the welfare system failed under these conditions, what 
then of the fate that awaited organizing efforts in places with more 
conservative political leaders and fewer recipients? 27 The groups 
that remained were widely scattered throughout the United States; 
few contained as many as fifty members. In fact by 1970 these groups 
had also begun to falter. One reason was the development of an 
elaborate organizational structure, and the constraining influence 
of this structure on NWRO’s leadership. 

The development of an organizational structure had immediate 
consequences for welfare rights groups. The ease and rapidity with 
which the organization came into being validated the belief in mass- 
based organization doctrine, in the potential for political influence 
through organization. Although most WROs had only a small dues- 
paying membership—ranging from twenty-five to seventy-five mem¬ 
bers—there were upwards of 500 groups throughout the country 
toward the late 1960s, each of which was permitted to send at least 
one delegate and alternate to national conferences and conventions. 
Consequently, these national meetings were populated by hundreds 
of recipient delegates and alternates, and by equally large numbers 
of organizers, all of which conveyed the impression that the welfare 
rights struggle was being conducted by grassroots forces of massive 
proportions. (Welfare rights demonstrations throughout the country 
also received a fair amount of press coverage and this, too, helped 
buttress convictions regarding the viability of traditional organizing 
doctrine.) Thus it was generally thought that the welfare rights 


27 The success of the campaigns in New York and Massachusetts was not duplicated in 
most other places. In Detroit demonstrations for school clothing grants led political 
officials to shut down the welfare department temporarily. In Chicago the geographical 
boundaries of the district offices were changed to isolate and confine the area where 
welfare rights agitation was greatest, thus making it easier to cope with demonstrations 
(Martin, 126, 161-163). 




310 


Poor People's Movements 

struggle was burgeoning, was vital, was making gains, despite the 
demise of mass benefit campaigns. But the truth is that the develop¬ 
ment of a complex organizational structure at the neighborhood, 
city, state, and national levels was an inhibiting force from the 
outset. In particular, it inhibited the expansion of membership. 

The elaboration of organization meant the elaboration of leader¬ 
ship positions on the neighborhood, city, and state levels. Once 
groups had formed and affiliated with NWRO and leaders had 
been duly elected, these leadership positions became a source of 
intense preoccupation and competition. Considering the hard and 
dreary lives which most welfare recipients had previously led, the 
rewards of prestige and organizational influence which accrued to 
those who could win and hold office were enormous. An equally 
enormous investment in the politics of leadership naturally followed. 
These circumstances constrained the expansion of membership, for 
the leaders came to have an investment in membership stasis. 

Recipient leaders at all levels of the organization had to be period¬ 
ically reelected; new members represented a threat. Struggles for 
leadership succession might ensue; existing leaders might be toppled. 
Once a group had formed and developed an acknowledged leadership 
stratum, therefore, the leaders tended to focus on cultivating and 
strengthening their ties within the group. City and state representa¬ 
tives were similarly preoccupied; they concentrated on cultivat¬ 
ing and strengthening their ties with local leaders in their city or 
state. Consequently leaders resisted new membership organizing 
ventures, as this example reveals: 

The Massachusetts Welfare Rights staff pressed for a provision 
in the state-wide organization’s by-laws that voting strength for 
each local group at the annual conventions would be proportional 
to the number of dues-paying members it had in the hope that 
this would give all recipient leaders seeking higher office an incen¬ 
tive to build their membership. Unfortunately, once that higher 
office had been attained, and until just before the next convention, 
there was little reason for most recipient leaders to pay much atten¬ 
tion to maintaining or expanding their groups. Some lay leaders 
opposed staff efforts to revitalize their groups partly because of their 
fear that the new membership faction might hold potential chal¬ 
lengers to the incumbent’s chairmanship. At times, leaders of a 
dwindling group agreed to new organizing drives but stipulated 
that no new local elections be held. In such cases, stalemates oc- 



311 The Welfare Rights Movement 

curred; the MWRO staff refused to help recruit new members 
under these conditions. 

Opposition to staff plans for major new organizing drives in 
those sections of Boston's black ghetto that had not yet been 
organized was opposed by the predominantly black MWRO leader¬ 
ship who, in part, feared the creation of new centers of power in the 
organization. In one case, such a drive took place only because the 
MWRO Executive Board members felt sure that those who would 
be elected leaders of the new group would respect their seniority. 

In another, the worst fears of the Executive Board were realized 
when the chairman of a newer black group in Roxbury challenged 
and defeated the incumbent MWRO statewide chairman at the 
1970 MWRO convention (Bailis, 72-73). 

Problems of leadership maintenance were also the chief cause of 
resistance among WROs to organizing recipients from other relief 
categories—such as the aged and working poor. In 1968 we had pub¬ 
lished an article entitled ‘‘Workers and Welfare” in which we esti¬ 
mated that hundreds of thousands of working poor families were 
eligible for relief supplements from ‘‘general assistance” programs 
in the welfare systems of the northern states. In some of these states, 
such as New York, a large family with a minimum wage income 
could obtain a wage supplement that would have doubled its income. 
We thus advocated campaigns to swell the general assistance rolls. 28 
In conversations with both George and other leaders, however, it 
became clear that there was no longer any interest in producing a 
welfare disruption. The earlier idea that a welfare recipients’ organi¬ 
zation would also become the vehicle for mobilizing drives to recruit 
potential recipients to the relief rolls was all but forgotten. Instead 
exclusive priority was placed on building the existing organization, 
for by this time George and others were convinced that a mass-based 
national union of welfare recipients was in fact coming into being. 
He thus chose “to play down disruptive tactics, at least for the time 
being, and [to put] a first emphasis on building up a dues-paying 
organization . . . (Steiner, 290). 29 


28 This article is reprinted in Cloward and Piven, 1974. 

20 NWRO’s top leadership frequently complained that the main reason they did not 
mount enrollment campaigns is that no one knew how to do it. Echoing this criticism, 
Steiner says: “The real difficulty is that Cloward and Piven do not explain how to 
get all the eligible poor people on the rolls . . . they leave unanswered the crucial 
question: how to find, motivate and sustain these people while they are getting on 




312 


Poor People's Movements 

But George was excited about the possibility of organizing among 
people in other relief categories, such as the working-poor and aged 
recipients. He was beginning to believe that NWRO’s membership 
base was too narrow, that an organization consisting exclusively of 
AFDC recipients would inevitably fail to attract substantial support 
from groups with influence and money and other resources. And it 
would inevitably be hampered in its efforts to exert political influ¬ 
ence by the stigma associated with AFDC mothers. The broader base 
he envisioned would not only consist of other categories of relief 
recipients, but of the unemployed as well. He also wanted to expand 
from the focus on welfare issues to include agitation around other 
governmental programs that affected the poor (such as publicly 
assisted health programs). Moreover, George had developed a net¬ 
work of contacts and goodwill which led him to think that many 
groups (for example, existing organizations of the aged, of tenants, 
and of the unemployed) could be brought together in a single 
national structure under his general direction. It was a vision of 
mass-based, multi-constituency, multi-issue, permanent organization 
writ large. But that is not our point. The point is that he wanted 
NWRO’s recipient leadership and central office staff to endorse 
the concept of incorporating new groups. 

Largely at his urging, therefore, the recipient delegates at NWRO’s 
convention in 1969 voted to extend formal membership eligibility 
to all people with incomes below NWRO’s adequate income stand¬ 
ard, which was then $5,500 for a four person family; previously, only 
AFDC recipients had been eligible for membership. George was 
elated: “The big thing is . . . that membership is going to be based 
on income from now on. Any family that gets less than $5,500 a year 
can join. I think these people will join. We want to reach all poor 
people; we’ve got to grow . . (Martin, 129). This theme was re¬ 
iterated in his opening address one year later at the convention in 
Pittsburgh: 

Our political strength hasn’t really been felt yet. We’ve been or¬ 
ganizing, building, and demonstrating for an adequate income for 


the rolls” (297). On the contrary, “these people” did not have to be “found” or 
“motivated”; they were flooding the welfare centers with millions of applications, and 
many were being turned away. To have located and aided them in fighting through the 
eligibility process, one had only to go to the welfare centers across the nation. But 
Steiner also says (without recognizing the contradiction) that NWRO’s leadership had 
little time for the welfare centers because they were preoccupied with “bureaucrats, 
scholars, and lobbyists in all-day conferences to plan welfare changes . . .” (285). 




313 


The Welfare Rights Movement 

all Americans, whether they’re on welfare or not, and we’re serving 
notice that we expect to escalate that strategy. We’re going to have 
even more people in our movement, and we’re going to attack 
more of the real problems in this country, like the lack of adequate 
health care. We have got to get it together on health rights and 
medical care and with the people who don’t make an adequate 
income but don’t get welfare either, and with the aged, and with 
the disabled—all those people who don’t know their rights yet 
(Martin, 130). 

While it is true that the national recipient leadership and much 
of the organizing staff acquiesced to the changes in constitution and 
rhetoric, it was also true that they had no incentive to act on them. 
It took little organizational acumen to anticipate that a diversified 
constituency would lead ineluctably to struggles for leadership. Per¬ 
sons from other relief categories, for example, differed by age or by 
sex from AFDC recipients, and they were oriented to different prob¬ 
lems involving different relief programs. Had they been brought 
into the organization, they would surely have pressed for the nomi¬ 
nation of leaders with characteristics similar to their own, and with 
interests similar to their own. Organizing drives among these cate¬ 
gories would have enlarged and diversified the membership base, to 
be sure, but the very existence of an elaborate formal leadership 
structure precluded that possibility. Consequently, resistance to the 
implementation of proposals for new organizing drives was mounted 
at all levels of the organization, a circumstance which George took 
note of during an interview in 1970: 

We are trying to branch out beyond ADC mothers but we’ve had 
little success so far. . . . The ADC mothers, naturally enough, are 
interested in ADC issues and they control the organization right 
now. They are not going to make a real effort to go out and 
organize the working poor. It’s not in their immediate self-interest, 
though it is in their long-run interest. All people, poor people 
included, do not willingly give up power that they have worked for 
and still have. Especially for poor people, when it is probably the 
only power they have and it isn’t much (Martin, 32). 

One approach to this dilemma was to have staff organizers begin 
developing new groups without the cooperation of NWRO’s re¬ 
cipient leadership, and then to precipitate power confrontations. 
George spoke of this possibility in the same interview: 

Issues develop around a constituency. Welfare issues developed 
around a welfare constituency. We’ll have to organize people like 



314 


Poor People's Movements 

the aged and the working poor and bring them in so they will be 
making demands on the organization just like the ADC mothers 
are doing now. We really have to subsidize this ourselves. The staff 
will have to organize groups like the working poor without much 
help from the mothers, and then bring the organized groups into 
NWRO to challenge the mothers. Through a challenge like this, 
some kind of accommodation will be worked out (Martin, 132). 

At the time, however, George took no such drastic action, and 
restricted his efforts to cultivating relationships with other organiza¬ 
tions. Then in 1972 he attempted to capitalize on these relationships 
by calling for a “Children’s March for Survival.” This event was 
designed to bring together a broad coalition of child-oriented groups 
to lobby in Washington, as his appeal for support of the impending 
march revealed: 

Children suffer from poverty, and because of poverty, from hunger. 
Children suffer from racism. Children suffer from war, from an 
exploited environment, from poor schools, and from poor health. 
We will gather to condemn policies and programs of the Nixon 
Administration and the Congress which perpetuate these condi¬ 
tions and in many ways worsen them. 

We condemn: 

— the veto of the Child Care Bill 

— cuts and restrictions in child feeding programs 

— delays in health, housing, and education programs 

— and most of all—the proposal of the so-called 
Family Assistance Plan instead of real welfare reform 

We call today for a Children’s March for Survival to focus national 
attention on the problems of children and to begin an action plan 
to save our nation’s children. 

The march occurred on March 25; about 40,000 people gathered 
at the Washington Monument. The composition of the march re¬ 
flected the internal struggle taking place in NWRO. About 80 per¬ 
cent of the participants were children from the Washington, D.C., 
schools. They had been encouraged to attend by militant black 
Washington school board officials who had gained office on the crest 
of black unrest in the late 1960s. Another 10 percent were children 
bussed into Washington by workers from child-care centers in sur¬ 
rounding states. Another 10 percent were middle-class sympathizers 
from groups involved in children’s rights, hunger, and peace issues. 
It is doubtful that welfare recipients comprised one percent of the 



315 The Welfare Rights Movement 

crowd. The recipient leadership, in other words, did not view this 
demonstration as their own; nor did many organizers, with the result 
that little support was received from those WROs that were still 
functioning at the local level. 

In the end George backed away from the effort to expand the 
membership base by diversifying it, concluding that the fight could 
not be won without destroying NWRO itself in a factional struggle. 
Instead he resigned from NWRO in December 1972 and announced 
that he and Bert DeLeeuw (a longtime aide) were going to under¬ 
take the formation of a multi-constituency organization to be called 
the Movement for Economic Justice. His resignation was a direct 
outgrowth of this conflict with NWRO’s established leadership. 30 

As a matter of fact, the concept of membership itself had by the 
1970s lost much of its meaning. In organizing doctrine, membership 
means something more than merely formal affiliation through the 
payment of dues. It also means active participation in the life of the 
organization—in demonstrations, for example. Mass participation is 
ostensibly the functional equivalent of the political resources (such 
as wealth) which interest groups elsewhere in the social structure 
possess. As organizers sometimes put it, poor people have numbers. 
Membership, in short, means regular participation by masses of 
people. 

But NWRO’s history reveals that membership eventually came to 
mean little more than formal affiliation through the payment of dues, 
and in the end there was not much emphasis placed even on the 
maintenance of the dues system. What mattered was winning and 
holding office. An illustration will make the point. In the summer 
of 1970, a recipient leader in New York City, who was then an 
officer of the national organization, undertook a “school clothing 
campaign.” It was, from every perspective, a sad affair. The New 
York City-wide Coordinating Committee of Welfare Rights Groups 
had for some time been nothing more than a shell, consisting mainly 
of an executive committee composed of a few recipient leaders from 
the various boroughs who were still hanging on to their positions 
although most of the members of the groups which had originally 
yielded them these positions were gone. This group met irregularly, 
and its meetings consisted mainly of bickering over the distribution 
of such funds as the organization was still able to raise. 


30 When George died some eight months later, DeLeeuw assumed the executiveship of 
the Movement for Economic Justice. 


316 


Poor People's Movements 

In the fall of 1970 word was passed through what little welfare 
rights infrastructure remained in New York City that it would be 
possible for poor people to obtain a grant of money for school cloth¬ 
ing from funds available to the Board of Education under the federal 
Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Some 14,000 
people signed forms requesting a grant, having been required in 
advance to sign a NWRO dues card and to pay the annual fee of 
$1.00. Little effort was then made to integrate these thousands of 
people into the few welfare rights groups that remained, or to 
organize them into new groups. However 14,000 dues cards resulted 
from the campaign, and permitted this particular recipient leader 
to win still higher national office at the NWRO convention in the 
summer of 1971, since the fractional weight of ballots cast by NCC 
members in electing national officers was determined by the number 
of dues-paying members in their respective states. This was one 
example of the extent to which the goal of a mass membership had 
been subordinated to leadership strivings. In these different ways, 
then, the proliferation of organizational leadership positions con¬ 
strained the expansion of organizational membership. Simply put, 
organization prevented organizing. 


The Consequences of External 
Leadership Incentives 

By the late 1960s, it was clear that NWRO was in grave difficulty. 
Mass-benefit campaigns were faltering; the leadership was also in¬ 
hibiting the expansion of membership. Consequently the national 
staff was virtually paralyzed; it simply did not know what to do in 
order to resuscitate its constituency. The only plan available was to 
expand to new groups, such as the working poor and the aged, but 
we have already described the intense resistance by established 
leaders to this course of action. For all practical purposes, NWRO 
was becalmed. 31 


si Some mention should be made of the effort by NWRO and its local affiliates to 
sustain membership by promoting other issues: Attempts were made to obtain credit 
card agreements with Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, and with local depart¬ 
ment stores in a number of cities. Day care issues, education, health care, housing, 
surplus foods, school lunches, and the like were also promoted. It was hoped that by 
developing a broader multi-issue program NWRO's flagging membership base could be 
revived. These efforts never caught on, however. 




317 The Welfare Rights Movement 

Nevertheless NWRO’s organizational apparatus expanded in the 
period between 1969 and 1972. The national budget rose, the 
national staff grew, and NWRO’s national reputation enlarged. That 
this could be so was a consequence of a swelling tide of support 
from outside sources. Within a year or two after NWRO formed in 
1967, various groups—churchmen, public officials, social welfare 
organizations, unions, civil rights groups, foundations, media repre¬ 
sentatives—began either to initiate relationships with NWRO or to 
respond to overtures for relationships. In this way organizational 
resources were obtained—public legitimation, money, the appear¬ 
ance of influence. 

But this enlarging flow of resources did not lead to enlarged 
organizing; it undermined organizing. As NWRO gradually be¬ 
came enmeshed in a web of relationships with governmental officials 
and private groups, it was transformed from a protest organization 
to a negotiating and lobbying organization. This transformation was 
total; it occurred at the national level and among local groups 
everywhere. In the end it produced a leadership deeply involved in 
negotiating and lobbying, but on behalf of a constituency that was 
organized in name only 


THE SOURCES AND FORMS OF SUPPORT 

The success with which NWRO developed relationships with a variety 
of groups was due mainly to two forces. The more important was 
the larger black movement and the responsiveness being shown it. 
NWRO could easily capitalize on this. It was a national organization 
and large numbers of representatives from local groups attended 
national conventions, so that NWRO could present itself as the 
representative of the welfare poor. Moreover, the vast majority of 
NWRO’s membership was black; this, too, helped to identify NWRO 
as an expression of the larger black movement and enabled NWRO’s 
leadership to seek aid from supporters of the black movement. 32 

The growth of support for NWRO was also aided by the emer¬ 
gence toward the late 1960s of a “welfare crisis.” One form which 


32 All observers agree that NWRO’s membership was almost entirely black. Martin, for 
example, estimates that 85 percent of the membership was black, 10 percent white, and 
5 percent Latin (2, fn.l, and Appendix C. f Table 44). 




318 


Poor People’s Movements 

governmental responsiveness toward the black movement in America 
had taken was to allow the welfare rolls to expand, and the expan¬ 
sion was rapid after 1965. In our terms this meant that defiance of 
the prohibition against the dole was escalating, partly as a result 
of the activities of the antipoverty program. Tens of thousands of 
welfare rights brochures were being distributed from storefront 
offices; thousands of VISTA and other antipoverty staff members 
were helping people to establish their eligibility; scores of legal 
services attorneys were initiating litigation against the welfare sys¬ 
tem. It also seems reasonable to believe that the many who were 
successful in getting on the rolls encouraged others to make the 
attempt. The very density of the welfare populations which had by 
this time built up in the cities suggested the likelihood of such a 
cumulative effect. A survey of slum families in ten central city 
neighborhoods in late 1966 revealed that almost half—47 percent— 
of the surveyed families reported income in the previous year from 
welfare or other non-job sources. 33 In the words of a report prepared 
by the Urban Coalition in 1969, “The welfare system continues to 
be the major growth industry of the slums and ghettos. . . 

In late 1967 Congress enacted a series of amendments to the Social 
Security Act intended to slow the rise in the rolls. The states were 
required to establish work training and referral programs for re¬ 
cipients defined as employable. Participation in these programs was 
made compulsory, a condition of receiving assistance. (However, 
local welfare administrators did not enforce these new measures; 
they feared the political repercussions in the ghettos of large-scale 
efforts to force mothers and children off the rolls.) To insure that 
the states would exert themselves to cut the rolls, Congress also en¬ 
acted a “freeze” on AFDC reimbursements. Under the freeze each 
state was to receive future federal reimbursements only in an amount 
calculated by a formula fixed at the ratio of AFDC children to the 
total population of children in the state as of January 1967. In other 
words a state with a rising ratio of children in impoverished female¬ 
headed families would, whatever the causes, nevertheless in future 
years be obliged either to reject new applicants, to lower grant levels 
and spread the same money among a larger number of cases, or to 


33 Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, No. 36, September 8, 1967 (Washington, 
D.C., Congressional Quarterly Service),p. 1729. 




319 The Welfare Rights Movement 

raise more revenues to pay the entire cost of the increased caseloads. 
(However, after Congress enacted the freeze, state and local officials 
protested vigorously, with the result that the Johnson Administration 
postponed the effective date of the freeze, and the Nixon Adminis¬ 
tration did the same, until it was forgotten.) 

A variety of more comprehensive proposals to deal with the wel¬ 
fare crisis were also put forward in this period. President Johnson, 
in his Economic Message of January 1967, promised to establish a 
Commission on Income Maintenance Programs (which he later did, 
and when the commission reported in the fall of 1969, it called for 
a national minimum income standard of $2,400 for a family of four). 
In March 1967, on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of 
the New York State Board of Social Welfare, the cream of America’s 
corporate leadership was summoned to an Arden House conference 
by Governor Rockefeller to consider remedies for the welfare crisis. 
The participants debated various income reforms—such as children’s 
allowances, uniform national standards in AFDC payments, and a 
negative income tax—finding merit in them all. 

Professionals in greater number and with greater vigor also began 
to advocate income maintenance reforms. As Congress debated a 
variety of restrictive measures and enacted some in 1967, OEO 
funded a negative income tax experiment among a sample of poor 
people in New Jersey, and not many months later, the Social and 
Rehabilitation Service of HEW allocated funds for similar experi¬ 
ments. In the spring of 1968 some 1,200 prominent economists signed 
a joint statement calling on Congress “to adopt this year a national 
system of income guarantees and supplements.” When the report of 
the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appeared in 
March 1968 it too called for a “National System of Income Supple¬ 
mentation” which would provide a minimum income for all families 
on welfare as well as for the working poor. 

Moreover, the issue of income maintenance found its way into 
the presidential campaign of 1968. The Democratic platform stated 
that: “To support family incomes of the working poor a number of 
new program proposals have recently been developed. A thorough 
evaluation of the relative advantages of such proposals deserves the 
highest priority attention by the next administration. This we pledge 
to do.” Eugene McCarthy, in the course of the Democratic primary 
contests, argued that the federal government had a responsibility to 
“determine a minimum income which it will assure for all Ameri- 



320 


Poor People’s Movements 

cans.” And only days before his election, Richard Nixon, noting the 
great disparities in welfare payment levels from one state to another, 
which ostensibly encouraged migration from South to North, advo¬ 
cated the adoption of “national standards.” The rising welfare rolls, 
in short, inexorably forced the question of welfare reform onto the 
national political agenda. 

NWRO could capitalize on this development because many people 
—from members of the press to public officials—had reached the in¬ 
correct conclusion that “NWRO was largely responsible for raising 
the number of people on welfare in six years from less than [1 million 
families to over 3 million], and in quadrupling appropriations made 
to Aid to Dependent Children families. Friends and enemies alike 
credited NWRO with a major role in this explosion of welfare 
aid” (Meier and Rudwick, x). Consequently three kinds of resources 
became available to NWRO. 

First, legitimacy came to be conferred upon the welfare rights 
struggle itself. The rise of a black movement (especially rioting) in 
the North had helped to focus attention on the economic plight of 
the black masses. Given the persistence of black unemployment and 
underemployment, some modestly influential groups began to reach 
the conclusion that government had a responsibility to provide in¬ 
come to the poor. One result of this shift in attitudes was increasing 
approval by these groups of the idea that people had a “right” to 
welfare. To the extent that NWRO was publicly defined as lead¬ 
ing the fight to make this right a reality, it gradually came to enjoy 
the support of these groups—notably, small foundations which gen¬ 
erally supported the civil rights struggle, the leadership of several 
national religious denominations, segments of the social welfare 
community, some civil rights leaders, political leaders identified with 
the “struggle against hunger,” and a small number of wealthy 
individuals. 

To say that the welfare rights struggle enjoyed some legitimacy is 
not to say that it enjoyed much. Welfare rights never became en¬ 
nobled by the honor of its cause. With a few exceptions, powerful 
and prestigious figures, whether black or white, did not flock to its 
demonstrations (as they had to those of the civil rights movement in 
the South), nor did they contribute money to finance organizing, 
nor lend their influence to further welfare rights demands. This was 
to remain a movement of paupers, of a pariah class. The civil rights 
movement was widely extolled as a force strengthening the American 
character and American values by furthering the highest democratic 



321 The Welfare Rights Movement 

ideals; the welfare rights movement was widely denounced as a force 
weakening the American character by undermining the most cher¬ 
ished value of self-reliance. Such legitimacy as it enjoyed—and it 
was meager at best—was due less to recognition of the injustices 
perpetrated by economic arrangements and by the welfare system 
than to the widespread sympathy which “the black cause” in general 
had aroused in American society during the 1960s. Still, as the wel¬ 
fare crisis ballooned, NWRO did receive a measure of recognition 
and that was important in sustaining the organization for a brief 
time. 34 

A second form of support was financial. In this later period civil 
rights groups, religious institutions, 35 social welfare organizations, 
and various foundations began to make money available to NWRO 
in larger amounts. For the first two years NWRO had struggled to 
find funds to sustain its operations; deficits ran into the tens of 
thousands of dollars; the payment of salaries in the national office 
often lagged behind by several months. By 1968, however, funds 
became available; the national operating budget rose to more than 


34 In the first year or two after NWRO formed, little support came from established 
black leaders and organizations. In part this merely reflected competitive strains for 
constituencies and resources. But it also reflected deep ambivalence about welfare. 
Generally speaking, black leaders felt that welfare was something blacks ought to get 
off of, not on to. The enlarging number of blacks on the welfare rolls was a source of 
acute embarrassment to them. When we approached one prominent black leader for 
help in gaining access to funds, he probably expressed the sentiments of most when he 
said that getting one black female a job as an airline stewardess was more important 
than getting fifty impoverished female-headed families on the welfare rolls. As a 
national debate over poverty, unemployment, and the rising welfare rolls broke out, 
however, a number of black leaders became more sympathetic. Among other things they 
began to condemn current welfare practices and to call for the establishment of some 
kind of national minimum income program. 

35 The private institution that probably provided the most assistance to NWRO was 
the church. Some churchmen, having been deeply involved in and affected by the 
southern civil rights movement, were likely to have an understanding of the depths of 
race and class oppression to which blacks had been subjected. These churchmen some¬ 
times turned out to be the most ardent advocates and organizers of welfare rights groups. 
At the local level churches expressed their support by providing some money, office 
space, telephones, and access to equipment for the reproduction of welfare rights 
literature and fliers. Many clergymen throughout the country joined demonstrations, a 
number organized welfare rights groups, and some local confederations of churches 
sponsored a clergyman to organize on a fulltime basis. At the national level several 
major denominations funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars to NWRO or its 
affiliates over the years, they provided forums for the discussion of welfare rights goals 
and policies, and denominational leaders joined in coalitional efforts to influence 
political leaders regarding welfare issues. The participation of clergymen was an im¬ 
portant source of reassurance to welfare recipients. It helped them to deal with their 
sense of shame by giving them the feeling that what they were demanding—in effect, 
dependency with dignity—found some justification in moral and religious principles. 



322 


Poor People’s Movements 

$250,000 annually in 1969. These monies made possible frequent 
regional and national meetings of recipient leaders and organizers, 
and the hiring of a large national staff. 

Some money, it should be noted, came directly from government. 
The occasion for the largest grant arose from the enactment in 1967 
of the amendments to the Social Security Act which required the 
states to establish vocational training and placement programs for 
AFDC mothers in the hope of reducing welfare costs. Suspecting that 
HEW would not implement this program as fervently as its sponsors 
wished, Congress assigned the task to the Department of Labor. That 
department, in turn, anticipated the possibility that considerable 
trouble might be provoked in the urban ghettos if the state employ¬ 
ment agencies began forcing women off the relief rolls and into the 
labor market on a large scale. When NWRO proposed that it be 
commissioned and funded to hire a staff to monitor local employ¬ 
ment programs, the better to ensure the willing participation in the 
program by AFDC mothers, the Labor Department quickly agreed. 
NWRO leaders publicly justified the arrangement as a way of ensur¬ 
ing that the rights of AFDC mothers would be respected, but pri¬ 
vately they viewed it as a way of greatly expanding the national staff. 
A larger staff, they felt, even one tied to the federal agencies, would 
support and stimulate the growth of local affiliates. And so a grant 
of more than $400,000 was accepted from the outgoing Johnson 
Administration. Robert Michels would have found Gilbert Steiner’s 
defense of this arrangement rather naive: 

If the government can buy the support and the outreach efforts of 
the organized welfare leadership elite for half a million dollars, 
it will be a great bargain. If Wiley can sustain his organization with 
a great bloc of federal money, he can live to fight another fight. . . . 
There is no reason why Wiley should have rejected the federal gold. 
Claims of the Philadelphia WRO chapter that the contract involved 
selling out to the Establishment have more emotional than rational 
appeal. . . . The money means more to [Wiley] than to the Depart¬ 
ment of Labor, and the high-level recognition of NWRO’s impor¬ 
tance facilitates organizing (294). 

The third resource which various groups provided NWRO was 
political status—the appearance of possessing conventional political 
influence. As the welfare crisis mushroomed, organizations of various 
kinds became responsive to NWRO, with the result that NWRO’s 
leaders and organizers became confident that the opportunity for 



323 The Welfare Rights Movement 

the welfare poor to win concessions by lobbying had finally pre¬ 
sented itself. And there was certain evidence that this was so. The 
welfare crisis led to the proliferation of hearings, forums, confer¬ 
ences, and meetings devoted to the subject of relief giving. Some were 
convened by private groups, others by public and political figures, 
but all were devoted to debate over welfare reform. Each of these 
occasions appeared to be an opportunity for the welfare recipient’s 
point of view to be heard. AlthoughfNWRO frequently crashed 
meetings to which it had not been formally invited, the late 1960s 
brought an increasing volume of formal invitations for the leader¬ 
ship to appear. Public officials faced with the problem of holding 
back angry taxpayers nevertheless also tended to try to be responsive 
to NWRO, for they had the problem of restoring civil order in the 
cities. Consequently they too reached out to recipient groups to 
establish relationships and to initiate dialogue. As a matter of fact 
NWRO’s recipient leadership found itself being invited to inter¬ 
national conferences: 

Leaders are involved in conferences and meetings to the point 
where they have been known to find themselves with conflicting 
conference dates. Mrs. Tillmon, the national chairman, was unable 
to make NWRO’s 1968 National conference held in Lake Forest, 
Illinois, because she was a delegate representing poor people to 
the International Conference of Social Welfare in Helsinki, Finland, 
meeting at the same time. In a “memorandum to all affiliated 
groups,” which sounded bureaucratic enough to have come out 
of HEW itself, Mrs. Tillmon delegated authority and announced 
appointments to committees of the conference (Steiner, 289). 

Attendance at these foreign meetings was even justified to the 
NWRO membership on the grounds that a “new international wel¬ 
fare rights organization” was being talked about: 

I’ve been out of the country [to attend peace conferences] three 
times—in 1967 to Paris, in 1968 to Stockholm, in 1970 to Bogota. I 
just got back from Bogota. . . . These things I go to are important 
and they are for NWRO—for you, all of you, not me. In Bogota, 
they talked about setting up a new international welfare rights 
organization. This would mean NWRO would be in all kinds 
of different countries and would have a lot more power. This is 
the kind of thing I’m doing, working for you and trying to make 
your organization something (Martin, 109). 



324 


Poor People’s Movements 

Superficially, these symbols of recognition suggested that NWRO 
had become something of a political force. Gilbert Steiner, for ex¬ 
ample, read the signs that way: 

Objectively, it can be noted that the welfare clients’ organization 
has weathered its theoretical and practical problems to the point 
where its director is known, recognized, and consulted by the 
secretary of health, education, and welfare and resented at other 
high levels in that department; its chairman, an AFDC mother, 
sits with bureaucrats, scholars, and lobbyists in all-day conferences 
to plan welfare changes ... (285). 

But the truth was quite different. As NWRO’s integration with other 
groups progressed, the political beliefs of those in the leadership 
stratum became more conventional, the militancy of the tactics they 
advocated weakened, and the professed goal of membership expan¬ 
sion receded. We will first describe these effects at the national level, 
and then at the local level, for the way in which external incentives 
shaped the orientation and direction of the national and local organ¬ 
izations varied somewhat. 


THE IMPACT OF EXTERNAL INCENTIVES 
ON THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION 

NWRO was rapidly transformed as relationships with political fig¬ 
ures and various private groups developed. Its efforts to influence 
administrators, legislators, political leaders, and private groups soon 
overwhelmed investments in all other areas. For all practical pur¬ 
poses NWRO became a lobbying organization. 

The emphasis on lobbying progressed in stages. NWRO first 
entered state and national legislative arenas; it then began to build 
a “welfare coalition” consisting of a variety of national organizations 
that shared its perspectives on welfare reform; finally, it entered the 
arena of Democratic Party politics. The process began in 1967 with 
the welfare amendments then before the Congress as the major 
target. A modest demonstration was called in Washington in Septem¬ 
ber and NWRO’s top leadership testified before Congress and 
staged a sit-in in the chambers of a congressional committee (the 
first in history, it is said). This was the much-publicized occasion 
on which Senator Long (Democrat, Louisiana), chairman of the 



325 The Welfare Rights Movement 

powerful Senate Finance Committee, denounced AFDC mothers 
as “brood mares.” 

From this beginning NWRO began to seek relationships with a 
variety of organizations in the hope of developing support for its 
legislative efforts. One of the early occasions for coalition was pro¬ 
vided by SCLC’s “Poor People’s Campaign” in the spring and sum¬ 
mer of 1968. NWRO launched the first demonstration—a Mother’s 
March on May 12 (Mother’s Day)—during which George and Coretta 
King led some 5,000 demonstrators through the still-charred ruins 
of that section of Washington where rioting and burning had broken 
out following the assassination of Martin Luther King. During the 
ensuing months, until SCLC’s poor people’s campaign finally be¬ 
came mired in the mud and in the complexities of the federal 
bureaucracies, NWRO coordinated many of its lobbying activities 
with those of SCLC. 

Another highly visible occasion to broaden its external support 
presented itself in the fall of 1968 when the president convened a 
White House Conference on Hunger and Malnutrition. The NWRO 
leadership was so successful in presenting its case to the participants 
that a resolution was passed calling for a guaranteed annual mini¬ 
mum income of $5,500 for a family of four, much to the embarrass¬ 
ment of the president. 

The antiwar movement was a logical locus for coalition-building. 
NWRO quickly became a prominent constituent of the antiwar 
movement, not because it could muster many demonstrators for 
national or local rallies, but because NWRO’s presence enabled 
antiwar groups to link the issues of imperialism and war abroad with 
the government’s failure to deal with poverty and injustices at home. 
Most major antiwar demonstrations featured one or more NWRO 
leaders on the speaker’s platform and some local WROs sent a few 
delegates. 

Militancy, as might have been expected, declined as a result of 
this heavy investment in coalition-building and lobbying. By 1970 
recipient leaders who had begun their careers storming relief centers 
could hardly keep pace with their speaking schedules in one local, 
state, or national forum after another. They had become celebrities 
and they behaved accordingly. Here is a striking but not atypical 
example: 


The Massachusetts Conference on Social Welfare, a private social 
work-oriented organization, made it a practice to select the chair- 



326 


Poor People’s Movements 

man of the MWRO to serve on the Board of Directors. When the 
governor of Massachusetts decided to institute a “flat grant’’ welfare 
system, he chose a meeting of the Massachusetts Conference on Social 
Welfare to make his announcement. The chairman of the MWRO 
chose to sit on stage near the podium from which the governor 
spoke rather than lead a group of her members to that podium 
to disrupt the speech (Bailis, 73). 


THE IMPACT OF EXTERNAL INCENTIVES 
ON LOCAL ORGANIZATIONS 

The forces that shaped the orientation and direction of the national 
leadership were also at work at the local level. Local WROs also 
received resources that shaped their beliefs and tactics. Sympathetic 
individuals and organizations publicly identified themselves with 
the welfare rights struggle, yielding a measure of legitimacy. Anti¬ 
poverty agencies, churches, settlement houses and other organiza¬ 
tions, including a few unions, 30 provided meeting rooms, organizers, 
access to printing supplies and machines, and money. 

However, the most important integrative relationships at the local 
level were those formed with the welfare system itself. These rela¬ 
tionships were a powerful force in transforming WROs from protest 
to lobbying and service organizations. Welfare officials reached out 
to protesters in the hope of restoring calm, and protest leaders 
reached out to government officials in the hope of achieving re¬ 
forms. Thus as groups of recipients caused repeated disruptions of 
welfare procedures by picketing, and by sit-ins and demonstrations, 
welfare officials began to search out organizers and recipient leaders 
to initiate “dialogue” and, as often as not, organizers or recipient 
leaders demanded dialogue. The result, everywhere in the country, 
was the development of procedures for the negotiation of grievances. 
Many welfare departments established advisory councils composed 
of recipients; sometimes recipients were appointed to policymaking 
boards. 

If some local WROs were wary of these arrangements (at least at 
first) and therefore chose to maintain a certain distance from govern- 


ae in New York City, for example, District Council 37 was extremely helpful. 




327 


The Welfare Rights Movement 

ment, then welfare officials sometimes formed independent recipient 
organizations to which they tried to attract the leadership of the 
WROs. The most elaborate development of this kind occurred in 
New York City. The department of welfare established a division 
of “Community Relations” staffed by “community coordinators” or 
“community organizers” (who were usually young black or Latin 
graduates of schools of social work). These staff members then went 
into the slums, ghettos, and barrios to organize “client advisory com¬ 
mittees” which met monthly to discuss grievances and advise welfare 
officials on policy changes. The welfare department organizers also 
assiduously cultivated the leaders of existing WROs throughout the 
city, hoping to get them to join as well, and over time they succeeded 
in winning over a number of recipient leaders. The kinds of political 
attitudes which were acquired or reinforced through this process are 
exemplified in the following excerpts from the remarks of a client 
advisory committee member as quoted in a monthly newsletter: 

I feel there are obviously two ways to work—either to be adamantly 
demanding, issuing ultimatums, making use of opportunism and 
perhaps exaggeration in order to press a point—or the slower, 
admittedly, but perhaps more effective eventually, way of using the 
techniques of gathering together, speaking frankly, continuing to 
ask, to question, to discuss, to learn, bringing faith and belief in 
each other and high hopes in our hearts that we will be fairly 
heard—and our recommendations and proposals, when found to be 
valid, acted upon. 

The dawning of this new era of mutuality and exchange was 
signaled by the appearance of articles in leading professional jour¬ 
nals extolling the beginning of free and open communication be¬ 
tween giver and receiver. And just as it had done in the 1930s, the 
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania negotiated a model agreement with 
welfare recipients as a result of a hearing in October 1968. It stipu¬ 
lated that: 37 

The Executive Director of each county shall instruct the supervisor 
of each District Office to make available upon request by the County 
Welfare Rights Organization: 


37 Stipulation between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Public 
Welfare v. Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization, West District, October 17, 1968, 
issued by Elias S. Cohen, Commissioner. 




328 


Poor People's Movements 

a. Space when available in the reception or waiting area and a 
table and several chairs to accommodate members of the 
Welfare Rights Organization in reasonable number. 

b. A pay telephone in the reception or waiting area convenient 
to the use of Public Assistance applicants and recipients and 
members of the Welfare Rights Organization, and designated 
by a clearly visible sign for their specific use. 

c. One complete current copy of the Pennsylvania Public Assis¬ 
tance Manual for the specific use of Public Assistance appli¬ 
cants and recipients and members of the Welfare Rights 
Organization. 

d. Members of the Welfare Rights Organization of the County 
are entitled to access in reasonable numbers to the District 
Office to occupy the table, to maintain on and near the table 
signs identifying them and announcing their availability to 
assist applicants and recipients, to pass out in the reception 
or waiting area literature and leaflets announcing their availa¬ 
bility and function, and to accompany any applicant or 
recipient who requests assistance in any dealings with Public 
Assistance personnel. 

e. No Public Assistance personnel shall refuse or delay inter¬ 
views or otherwise differently treat any applicant or recipient 
who is assisted by a member of the Welfare Rights Organiza¬ 
tion, but rather, all Public Assistance personnel shall cooperate 
with members of the Welfare Rights Organization and shall 
recognize them as representatives of the client whenever the 
client so wishes. 

Such agreements, whether formalized in writing or not, became well- 
nigh universal. 

The development of these grievance procedures had a large influ¬ 
ence on the political beliefs that dominated the local WROs, for 
these arrangements went fai toward reaffirming for leaders and 
organizers the conviction that they represented a powerful organiza¬ 
tion. It was not remarkable that welfare officials, confronted by 
turbulent interference with the operation of their programs, moved 
to grant the disrupters a symbolic role in the system, for it was a 
time-honored method of restoring calm. What was remarkable was 
the ease with which the method worked. Each such “victory” was the 
occasion for self-congratulations among recipient leaders who, upon 
reading in the press of their appointments to advisory committees 
or upon receiving written invitations to negotiating sessions or upon 
being invited to testify at legislative hearings, envisaged the emer- 



329 The Welfare Rights Movement 

gence of a new period of justice for the welfare poor. To be listened 
to by the powerful conveyed a sense that they were at last wielding 
a measure of influence, that progress was being made, that reforms 
would follow. 

Another consequence of these arrangements was a decline in 
militancy. Government officials agreed to deal with the WROs but 
they exacted a price. Sometimes the price was so subtle as to make 
it appear that none was being asked. It may merely have consisted 
in an implicit understanding, all too readily acknowledged by re¬ 
cipient leaders and organizers, that the proper path to welfare 
reform was through negotiation by leaders and not protest by un¬ 
ruly mobs. Sometimes the terms were more explicit and included 
the understanding that the welfare rights organization would desist 
from abrasive actions. The agreement reached in Pennsylvania, 
which was mentioned earlier, provides a good case in point. Groups 
were not simply given open access to the welfare offices and to welfare 
officials; they were expected in exchange to do nothing to disrupt 
office routines or to interfere with the “rights” of clients to be left 
alone: 

Courtesy and Behavior 

It is suggested that agreements with the welfare rights organizations 
recognize that there are obligations with reference to behavior 
incumbent upon public assistance personnel and welfare rights 
organization representatives. Welfare rights organization representa¬ 
tives are expected to take no steps designed to intimidate, harass, 
embarrass or threaten public assistance personnel.... As representa¬ 
tives of clients, they are being provided with certain prerogatives, 
but these are not unbounded. 

Solicitation of Applicants and Recipients 

It is appropriate for county boards to reach agreements about the 
limits of welfare rights organization representatives accosting, inter¬ 
rupting, or importuning applicants or clients. 

Settlement of Disputes 

It is suggested that county executives may wish to reach agreement 
with welfare rights organization groups on the immediate settle¬ 
ment of a dispute which threatens or which has disrupted work 
to the point where staff cannot reasonably continue to work . 38 


38 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Public Welfare, Harrisburg, Pa., 
Public Assistance Memorandum No. 968, Supplement No. 1, March 11, 1969. 




330 


Poor People’s Movements 

As WROs became enmeshed in arrangements of this kind, the 
demonstrations, picketing, and sit-ins which had dominated the 
birth of WROs were gradually abandoned. Even the militancy of 
the rhetoric deescalated. Association with government officials who 
were “sympathetic” and “reasonable” and “oriented toward the 
problems of recipients” produced a large number of recipient leaders 
and organizers who came to affirm the efficacy of persuasion and 
negotiation. In early 1970, for example, a group of organizers and 
recipient leaders decided to attempt to revive direct action in New 
York, and began one morning in the crowded waiting room of a 
Harlem welfare center. The best-known figure in the group was a 
recipient who held a national office in NWRO. Upon learning that 
she was present, the director of the center offered to conduct her on 
a personal tour of the entire operation. It is a measure of the extent 
to which leaders had come to be controlled by such gestures that 
she accepted and was not seen again for several hours. 

Integrative relationships of this kind not only blunted militancy, 
they also interfered with the expansion of membership and even 
weakened the ties of existing members to the group. Negotiations 
absorbed the energy and time of leaders and organizers. The more 
the investment in these procedures, the less the investment in en¬ 
listing new members. Moreover formal relationships with welfare 
officials had the effect of making membership superfluous. Before 
such relationships became the rule it was not unusual for fifty or one 
hundred recipients to burst into a welfare center and demand that 
their grievances be settled on the spot. This tactic often worked 
and when it did, it was the group that had proved its strength; every¬ 
one depended upon everyone else. But once grievances came to be 
dealt with through negotiations between welfare rights leaders and 
welfare officials, group action no longer seemed necessary, and group 
consciousness disintegrated. The sense of participation in something 
larger than oneself, the sense of belonging to a movement, was 
gradually lost. 

And now a final but crucial point. As NWRO and its local affili¬ 
ates moved into the maze of legislative and bureaucratic politics, the 
failure to sustain, much less to expand, the membership base among 
the poor was obscured. For as the membership base dwindled and 
became less militant, the resources which NWRO secured continued 
to enlarge. In effect it became possible for NWRO to function with¬ 
out a mass base, without a broad constituency. The sympathy and 
fear generated by the black movement, together with the emerging 



331 The Welfare Rights Movement 

crisis over welfare, enabled NWRO to present itself to elites as the 
representative of a large segment of the black poor and thus to ob¬ 
tain the legitimation and money required for the maintenance of 
its organizational structure. In effect, external resources became a 
substitute for a mass base . 39 

But the availability of external resources upon which the organi¬ 
zation depended was not a response to organization; it was a re¬ 
sponse to widespread black unrest. Once unrest began to subside, 
these external resources were withdrawn. The result was organiza¬ 
tional collapse, as we shall now see. 


The Ebbing of Black Unrest 

If the developments already described had not caused the decline of 
NWRO, the decline of black unrest would have. As it was, the ebbing 
of black unrest dealt the death blow to an organization that was 
already greatly weakened. 

Toward the late 1960s the black movement which began in the 
South in the mid-fifties subsided, and the movement organizations 
it had spawned were dying if not already dead. For one thing much of 
the leadership of the black movement (as we noted in chapter four) 
was being absorbed into electoral politics, into government bureauc¬ 
racies, into the universities, and into business and industry; correla- 
tively the ideology of protest was repudiated and the efficacy of 
electoral politics was affirmed. As a result the cadres of organizers 
dwindled, their ranks diminished by the concessions won. 

While there is no way of marking the exact time when the tide 
of unrest turned, the year 1968 might be considered such a point. It 
was the last year of major urban rioting (in the wake of Martin 
Luther King’s assassination); it was also the year that the presidency 
passed from a liberal to a conservative leadership. With Nixon’s 


99 Bailis' description of the Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization perfectly fits our 
general observation: “Perhaps the final phase in the developing rifts between lay 
leaders and staff came when some local lay leaders began to realize that they did not 
need strong groups to play an important role in MWRO statewide politics, and the 
MWRO Executive Board began to reach the parallel conclusion that the honors and 
respect they were receiving from politicians, welfare administrators, and leaders of the 
social welfare community did not really require a functioning state wide grassroots 
organization at all” (73). 




332 


Poor People’s Movements 

accession to power the class and racial injustices that had figured so 
prominently in the rhetoric and action of earlier administrations, 
and that had encouraged protest among the black poor, gave way to 
rhetoric and action emphasizing law-and-order and self-reliance, with 
the effect of rekindling shame and fear among the black masses. A 
white backlash against black gains had developed and conservative 
leaders acted to stimulate it all the more as a means of building 
support. By the election of 1972 this rhetoric reached a crescendo, 
much of it focused specifically on the last vestige of black defiance— 
the still rising welfare rolls. In the presidential campaign of 1972 
Republican-sponsored television advertisements warned the Ameri¬ 
can people that if McGovern won the election he would put half of 
the population on welfare. Nixon exhorted Americans in his in¬ 
augural address not to ask what government could do for them, 
but what they could do for themselves, and then he rapidly popu¬ 
larized the slogan “Workfare not Welfare.” A mobilization against 
the black poor was occurring, with the welfare poor a particular 
target. 


THE END OF WELFARE LIBERALISM 

Not all was simply rhetoric Acting through its various executive 
departments the Nixon Administration also cut the flow of resources 
to ghetto organizations and reversed earlier policies which had 
yielded concessions to the poor. The Office of Economic Opportun¬ 
ity came under siege from the administration. Within a year or two 
the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare began to issue 
more restrictive policies and regulations in an effort to squash the 
substantive and procedural rights which welfare recipients had won 
through protest or that antipoverty attorneys had won through liti¬ 
gation. One of the most significant steps it subsequently took—a step 
unmistakably signaling the end of an era of welfare liberalism— 
was to introduce a system of substantial financial penalties to be 
imposed upon states when “quality control” studies showed that 
more than 3 percent of those receiving welfare were “ineligible.” 
As those familiar with the welfare system maze know, low ineligibil¬ 
ity levels can be achieved only at the price of keeping much larger 
proportions of eligible families off the rolls. 



333 The Welfare Rights Movement 

Political leaders at other levels of government joined in, either 
because new officials had come to power with a social philosophy 
which resonated with the new mood of the times or because con¬ 
tinued incumbency by existing leaders demanded accommodation 
to that mood. Governor Rockefeller had already perhaps outdone 
them all with his bizarre proposals to refuse welfare benefits to any 
newcomer to New York State who could not find decent housing or 
health care, followed by highly publicized investigations of '‘welfare 
fraud” conducted by a newly created office of Inspector General 
(headed by a millionaire of inherited wealth who despised the wel¬ 
fare poor). In California Governor Reagan garnered a national 
reputation by mounting similar anti-welfare campaigns. (New York 
and California, it should be noted, contained more than half of the 
nation’s welfare recipients.) One of the most celebrated anti-welfare 
events of the period occurred in Nevada, where the Department of 
Welfare launched a major campaign against “welfare cheaters.” On 
January 1, 1972, 21 percent of Nevada’s welfare population did not 
receive their welfare checks and 28 percent more received reduced 
checks. This came about because the welfare department decided 
to deal with the “welfare crisis” by conducting an “audit,” consist¬ 
ing of mobilizing virtually the entire work force of the department 
to interview employers and neighbors of the poor and to study the 
records of the social security and unemployment compensation 
agencies for any evidence of unreported income in the preceding 
five or more years. For most recipients the first notice of the audit 
was the failure of their checks to arrive, or the arrival of checks for 
smaller amounts. The reason given, in subsequent notices to re¬ 
cipients, was simply “overpayment” or “ineligibility.” 40 Many other 


40 NWRO quickly decided to try to make an “example" of Nevada, hoping thereby to 
deter other states from instituting similar “reforms." George also hoped that a mass 
mobilization in Nevada would bolster NWRO’s flagging fund-raising efforts and other¬ 
wise boost morale in the organization. 

Within weeks NWRO had “Operation Nevada" under way. A “Lawyer’s Brigade," 
consisting of some forty lawyers and seventy law students led by Edward Sparer 
(NWRO’s chief counsel), stormed the courts of Nevada, while NWRO's national staff 
as well as organizers from various parts of the country flew in to mobilize marches and 
demonstrations on the famous Las Vegas “Strip.” Notables also joined the demonstra¬ 
tions, including Ralph Abernathy, David Dellinger, Jane Fonda, and Sammy Davis, Jr. 

The most effective remedies were achieved through the courts. On March 20 the 
Federal District Court issued an order reinstating everyone who had been terminated or 
who had received reduced grants, and retroactive payments wfere ordered. The court 




Poor People’s Movements 334 

states cut welfare payment levels or introduced eligibility restrictions 
between 1970 and 1972, although not on such a large scale. 

One immediate consequence of this changing political climate 
was to dry up many of the resources—especially government re¬ 
sources—upon which local WROs had drawn. As funds for the 
Great Society programs were cut (and diverted into “revenue shar¬ 
ing,’’ for example), the ranks of organizers were decimated. The 
welfare rights organizers who remained found that local adminis¬ 
trators of the Great Society programs had become fearful and would 
no longer support organizing efforts. 

Under these influences the militancy of the welfare poor all but 
vanished. As we noted earlier, most local groups across the United 
States had been formed by grievance work. But by the early seventies 
the few organizers who remained found that welfare administrations 
were stiffening their resistance to demands by organized recipient 
groups. The new national rhetoric diminished their responsiveness 
to the poor and the passing of rioting and other forms of mass pro¬ 
test diminished their fear of the poor. If once welfare officials had 
been oriented toward the great turbulence in the streets beyond their 
office doors, now they were oriented to the growing signs of restric¬ 
tiveness contained in regulations being issued from Washington and 
from their respective state capitals. Given both of these conditions 
local recipient groups won less and less, and the fewer the victories 
the more difficult it became to sustain participation by even the 
more committed and loyal recipients. Month by month the belief 
grew that the fight was being lost—even, perhaps, that it was no 
longer worth being fought. Consequently more organizers and re¬ 
cipients drifted away. 

It was also true that many local WRO members themselves had 
lost whatever inclination they might once have had to help other 
poor people. Their special relationship to the welfare system still 
sometimes served their individual needs, aiding them in solving 


found that “as a result of the precipitous action described, the Administrator and his 
staff ran roughshod over the constitutional rights of eligible and ineligible recipients 
alike.” The Department of Welfare, in short, had acted too flagrantly, too blatantly. 
There were more subtle ways of curbing welfare growth and of inducing terminations* 
other states were slowly developing them. 

Operation Nevada was a victory for NWRO, but it was the last. Indeed it was 
probably the last national demonstration of black people employing mass marches and 
civil disobedience coupled with supporting litigation in the courts. It was the end of 
the era that had begun almost two decades earlier in Montgomery, Alabama. 




335 The Welfare Rights Movement 

their own problems and even in obtaining special grants. In a rapidly 
changing political climate, especially with public welfare expendi¬ 
tures becoming a target of public ire, these remaining members be¬ 
came fearful and drew inward, trying to protect their privileged 
access. The narrowest possible self-interest and the ideological jus¬ 
tification for it thus came to dominate the few fragmented groups 
that survived. 

Under these circumstances, it would have taken a strenuous, de¬ 
voted, and resourceful program by the national leadership to try to 
buttress failing morale at the local level. In truth there is no reason 
to believe that the effort could have succeeded. The fires of protest 
had died out and organizers probably could not have rekindled 
them. The endless debates over the best means of building a mass- 
based permanent organization no longer mattered: whether by 
single- versus multi-issue organizing, or by single- versus multi¬ 
constituency organizing, or by decentralized versus centralized staff¬ 
ing patterns, or by placing less emphasis on material incentives in 
attracting members versus placing more emphasis on “educating” 
and “radicalizing” the membership. The fact is that an era of pro¬ 
test had inexorably come to a close. 

But it was not an analysis of the forces making for the probable 
futility of local organizing by 1970 that turned the national leader¬ 
ship away from the membership base. It was the promise of “welfare 
reform” and of the organizational and leadership rewards which 
would become available in the course of a struggle for reform. 


Welfare Backlash and Welfare Reform 

In a nationwide radio and television address on August 8, 1969, 
President Nixon announced a series of proposals for welfare re¬ 
organization. The Nixon proposals—known as the Family Assistance 
Plan (FAP)—called for the elimination of the AFDC program and 
its replacement with a program that would have guaranteed every 
family an annual minimum income at the level of $1,600 for a 
family of four, to be paid for by the federal government. Moreover, 
the proposed program included the working poor (i.e., two-parent 
families) who would be made eligible for wage supplementation 
by a formula that disregarded the first $720 of earned income for 
purposes of determining eligibility, and imposed a tax rate there- 



336 


Poor People’s Movements 

after of 50 percent, until the family of four had a total income from 
wages and welfare of $3,920, at which point supplementation would 
be discontinued. 41 

The proposals created a considerable stir. The main features ap¬ 
peared liberal, and in some ways were. The proposal for a federal 
minimum income standard and for wage supplementation would 
have mitigated some of the worst poverty in the South. The pro¬ 
posal would also have relieved states and localities of at least some 
of the fiscal burden of the rising rolls. 42 These were the aspects of 
the overall plan which tended to be featured in the press, and it 
was these aspects which attracted liberal support for FAP. 

In other major respects the plan was not liberal but regressive, 
and the longer-term implications of the more regressive provisions 
were less apparent to most observers. The plan would have wiped 
out the procedural rights which recipients had won through protest 
and litigation in the 1960s—for example, the right to a hearing if 
terminated from the rolls. It also contained provisions to enforce 
work among those deemed “suitable” for employment and would 
have required these “employable” recipients to take jobs at less than 
the minimum wage. 

The most urgent and the most straightforward political problem 
with which Nixon was trying to deal in proposing relief refornf was 
the clamor among local officials for fiscal relief, a clamor generated 
by rising budgets in the states, counties, and cities. Pressure for 
reform was a direct consequence of the fact that the American poor 
had made a modest income gain through the welfare system in the 
1960s. Enormous political pressure had built up at the state and 
local levels in response to the resulting fiscal strains; in his televised 
address, the president acknowledged that the rising rolls were 
“bringing states and cities to the brink of financial disaster.” 

Two broad constituencies had developed around this issue: those 


41 Detailed discussions of the FAP proposal and of the ensuing congressional struggle 
can be found in Moynihan; Burke and Burke; and Bowler. Bowler’s study contains 
exceptionally lucid explanations of the complex details of both the existing and pro¬ 
posed welfare programs. 

42 Since most states provided welfare grants at levels far higher than $1,600 for a family 
of four, states wouid still have had to supplement the federal payment, and more 
liberal states would have had to bear heavier costs than restrictive states, an arrange¬ 
ment not very different from that which existed under the old grant-in-aid formula. 
Nevertheless all states were assured of realizing at least some savings under the Nixon 
plan. 




337 The Welfare Rights Movement 

who simply wanted to cut back the gains made by the poor by slash 
ing both the rolls and grant levels, and those who wanted to see the 
burden of paying for relief costs shifted to the federal government. 
The latter constituency was by far the more powerful; it contained 
the bulk of the nation’s mayors, county officials, and governors. They 
wished to be spared the politically onerous and potentially dangerous 
necessity of cutting back welfare. Thus “the explosion in family 
benefit recipients put welfare, a subject typically shunned by the 
White House, on the agenda of President-elect Nixon,” according to 
two journalists, Burke and Burke, who covered these events. “Re¬ 
publican governors wanted relief from Washington and from their 
party’s president-to-be” (41). Referring to the long congressional 
struggle which then ensued over the proposals, these same authors 
go on to note: 

The only strong and unqualified pressure for H.R. 1 came from 
those who wanted welfare change not for reasons of philosophy, but 
rather for the promise of fiscal relief. These were many of the 
nation’s governors and county officials. To these men, frustrated by 
ever-rising welfare budgets, the structural reforms of H.R. 1 were 
relatively unimportant. What they wanted was money, and H.R. l’s 
federal floor for current welfare recipients would supply it (179). 

But while FAP would have provided some fiscal relief for states 
and localities, that objective, taken by itself, could have been 
achieved in any number of ways. The federal government might 
simply have arranged to pay relief costs, for example, while leaving 
the system otherwise intact. As it turned out, something like that 
happened. When relief reform failed, Congress enacted instead a 
multibillion dollar program of general “revenue sharing.” In other 
words the clamor of state and local officials clearly dictated a federal 
response to the fiscal crisis, but it did not dictate the specific changes 
in the welfare system proposed under FAP. 

In point of fact the FAP proposals were not designed mainly to 
ease fiscal strains. They were mainly designed to halt the growth 
of the AFDC rolls. Internal memoranda prepared for the president 
predicted a continuing steep climb in the rolls unless the system was 
redesigned. Stated another way, the growing dependency of the 
American underclass was defined as having its roots in the welfare 
system. There were two ways in which welfare practices were thought 
to produce this condition. 

First, it was argued that existing relief policies provided a dis- 



338 


Poor People’s Movements 

incentive for self-reliance since recipients who worked were required 
to report their earnings which were then deducted from monthly 
grants. The conventional wisdom held that this “100% tax” dis¬ 
couraged recipients from working their way off the rolls, generating 
perpetual dependency. Second, the rising rolls were considered to 
be a problem not only because they discouraged work, but because 
the ready availability of benefits presumably undermined the family 
system of the poor. Fathers were believed to be deserting in order 
to make mothers and children eligible for relief. “Fiscal abandon¬ 
ment,” some called it, and the president was advised that this circum¬ 
stance generated a continuous stream of new relief applicants. 

Various “pathologies” among the poor—mainly crime and civil 
disorder—were also attributed to welfare. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 
a presidential advisor, played a large role in promulgating this diag¬ 
nosis to the larger public and apparently he persuaded the president 
as well. The family assistance plan, he said, “was made ... as part of 
an over-riding short-term strategy to bring down the level of internal 
violence” (12). The chain of reasoning was that crime, civil dis¬ 
order, and other social pathologies exhibited by the poor had their 
roots in worklessness and family instability which, in turn, had their 
roots in welfare permissiveness. This chain of reasoning is vividly 
revealed in a summary of the views expressed by a group of “admin¬ 
istrators, academicians and intellectuals” with whom Moynihan met 
to discuss the welfare crisis in the big cities, New York City being the 
particular focus of attention: 

The social fabric of New York City is coming to pieces. It isn’t 
just “strained” and it isn’t just “frayed”; but like a sheet of rotten 
canvas, it is beginning to rip, and it won’t be too long until even 
a moderate force will be capable of leaving it in shreds and tatters. 

. . . Among a large and growing lower class, self-reliance, self- 
discipline, and industry are waning; a radical disproportion is 
arising between reality and expectations concerning job, living 
standard, and so on; unemployment is high but a lively demand 
for unskilled labor remains unmet; illegitimacy is increasing; 
families are more and more matrifocal and atomized; crime and 
disorder are sharply on the rise. There is, in short, a progressive 
disorganization of society, a growing pattern of frustration and 
mistrust.... This general pathology, moreover, appears to be infect¬ 
ing the Puerto Rican community as well as the Negro. A large 
segment of the population is becoming incompetent and destruc¬ 
tive. Growing parasitism, both legal and illegal, is the result; so, 



339 


The Welfare Rights Movement 

also, is violence. (It is a stirring, if generally unrecognized, demon¬ 
stration of the power of our welfare machine.) (Moynihan, 76; 
emphasis added.) 

As for this “stirring . . . demonstration of the power of our welfare 
machine” going “unrecognized,” that was, of course, far from being 
true. Everyone believed that relief-giving destroys the poor. Conserva¬ 
tives said it; middle-of-the-roaders said it; and liberals said it. The 
well-off said it and the bulk of the poor would have said it had 
they been asked. On this point there was unanimity. 

Armed with this analysis, relief reformers set out to rehabilitate 
the culture of the poor. The key to reducing “parasitism” was to 
redesign relief arrangements so as to enforce work. Moreover, by 
restoring the discipline of work, family stability would also be rein¬ 
forced and various social pathologies curbed. This was the overarch¬ 
ing objective of FAP and, given the analysis on which it was based, 
one can understand why a deeply conservative president confronted 
by extraordinary manifestations of social and civil disorder as he 
assumed office might have been led to embrace welfare reform. 

In fact the objectives underlying this effort at relief reform bore 
a striking resemblance to the objectives underlying earlier periods 
of relief reform. The fundamental conditions that gave rise to the re¬ 
form impulse were also historically familiar. The periodic expansion 
of relief-giving in western industrial countries has frequently been 
associated with agricultural transformations that uprooted the peas¬ 
antry and drove them into the cities and towns where many lan¬ 
guished without work. With people loosened from traditional con¬ 
trols and not enmeshed in new institutional patterns, social disorder 
worsened and took form finally in the widespread civil disorder that 
forced elites to create relief arrangements or to allow an existing 
system to expand. Then, with quiescence restored, the “social pathol¬ 
ogies” of the poor were redefined as having their cause in overly 
permissive relief arrangements, not in defective socioeconomic 
arrangements. 

As often as not this social theory has led to the poor being expelled 
from the relief rolls on the ground that by no other means can 
they be forced to overcome the habit of idleness. Nixon would ostensi¬ 
bly have done it differently. FAP provided a variety of measures 
intended to buttress work motivation. On one side, as we said 
earlier, there were incentives—a modest income disregard of $720 
annually, coupled with a tax rate allowing half of additional earned 



340 


Poor People’s Movements 

income to be retained to a maximum of $3,920 for a family of four. 
On the other side, there were sanctions—the denial of benefits to 
those who declined to work. Moreover, to insure the absorption of 
the poor into the labor force, the bill provided that recipients could 
be compelled to work at jobs significantly below the minimum wage. 
Through these measures the state would have intervened in the 
secondary labor market, subsidizing low-wage employers and insur¬ 
ing a disciplined supply of workers. 

Over time these arrangements might well have come to be used 
to force the poor to take any work at sub-minimum wages, one way 
of stemming the projected rise in the rolls which so troubled Nixon 
and his advisors. And that brings us to a crucial question: How 
harshly would the work requirements be administered once the 
turbulence of the 1960s had passed and with it the fear of the poor? 
On this question there was ample reason to be concerned, particularly 
after Nixon’s first year or two in office. 

There was, first, the evidence of Nixon’s orientation toward the 
existing welfare system. Even as the congressional struggle over wel¬ 
fare reform was beginning, Nixon’s appointees in HEW proceeded 
without fanfare to institute a host of new rules and regulations de¬ 
signed to make relief benefits more difficult to obtain and to keep. 
As time passed these regulations became increasingly restrictive, and 
the preoccupation was unmistakably one of reducing the rolls. 

There was, further, the evidence of the Nixon Administration’s 
economic policies. An administration concerned about the condition 
of the poor would not have initiated the policy of allowing unem¬ 
ployment to rise as a counter to inflation. By the end of 1970, the 
first year of debate over welfare reform, the nation had been plunged 
into the worst recession since World War II. And while the recession 
deepened, Moynihan wrote: “It cannot be too often stated that 
the issue of welfare reform is not what it costs those who provide it, 
but what it costs those who receive it” (18). It was a curious point 
to make during a period of rapidly rising unemployment; one might 
rather have called for an easing of relief restrictiveness in order to 
enable the poor to survive the impact of Nixon’s anti-inflation policies. 
This general callousness toward unemployment, coupled with re¬ 
strictive relief policies, suggests strongly that Nixon asked for welfare 
reform in the belief that a system of government coercion could 
succeed in driving the rolls down. 

Finally, there was the gradually evolving evidence of Nixon’s own 
conduct during the prolonged debate in Congress over welfare re- 



341 The Welfare Rights Movement 

form. With the passage of time he abandoned his proposed method 
of reducing the rolls in favor of a much more politically popular 
method, namely, to inflame public opposition to the welfare system 
and to let others (governors, county officials, and mayors) respond to 
the uproar by slashing the rolls. As he shifted from the one method 
to the other he withdrew support for his own plan even though 
victory in Congress was at hand. 

To be sure, there was considerable congressional opposition to 
FAP, not because the plan was restrictive but because it was not 
restrictive enough, particularly as it would have applied to the South. 
Support for the plan came largely from the industrial states in the 
North which had suffered the brunt of the rising rolls. Southern 
representatives tended to prefer to see the relief rolls slashed, for the 
South still relied on the lowest paid labor supply in the nation, 
despite the out-migration of many of its displaced poor. Even an 
income standard as low as $1,600 for a family of four would have 
undermined the southern wage structure. Accordingly southerners 
played the leading role in defeating the plan, using their consider¬ 
able power in the congressional committee structure to work for 
its defeat. 43 

However, the opposition of the South could have been overcome 
had the president persevered, but he did not. Publicly Nixon ap¬ 
peared to give continued support; in the day-to-day dealings be¬ 
tween his administration and Congress, however, it progressively 
became clear that his commitment to the plan was weakening. At 
critical junctures, when compromises between liberals (led by Abra¬ 
ham Ribicoff, the Democratic senator from Connecticut) and con- 


43 When we wrote “A Strategy to End Poverty,” we failed to foresee the full extent of 
southern opposition to a national minimum income system, an opposition rooted in a 
concern for preserving the extremely low wages which still prevail in parts of the South. 
One lesson from the debate over welfare reorganization is that a national minimum 
income standard, if it is enacted, will be very low in deference to the variations in wage 
levels associated with the different regional economies in the United States. 

One large reform that did result from the great rise in the relief rolls was the 
federalizing of the so-called adult categories—those for the disabled, blind, and aged. 
These categories were taken over by the federal government and absorbed into a new 
system called Supplemental Security Income (SSI). As a result there is now a national 
minimum standard for these groups, and that is an advance for these poor in many 
states. Furthermore, many more people applied for benefits than had previously been 
the case, for SSI is administered by the Social Security system and is not therefore felt 
to be as stigmatizing as the older relief programs. This substantial advance would not 
have occurred except for the fiscal crisis and the resulting political strains caused by 
the welfare explosion. The “strategy of crisis” had been partly right, but not quite in 
the way we had expected. 




342 


Poor People’s Movements 

servatives seemed possible—compromises that would have raised the 
annual minimum income by a few hundred dollars and softened the 
work provisions—the president refused to sanction them. 

The last and the most illuminating of these events occurred in 
June 1972. An option paper had been prepared for the president 
by the Office of Management and Budget, the Departments of Labor 
and of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the staff of the Domestic 
Council. ‘‘Three choices were analyzed: (A) stand pat with H.R. 1; 
(B) compromise with Long; and (C) compromise with Ribicoff” 
(Burke and Burke, 184). The option paper went on to note that 
option (C) is “the only possible strategy which can get us a bill.” At 
this juncture most observers agree that the president could have won 
the day had he compromised with Ribicoff and the liberals. How¬ 
ever he chose not to win. “President Nixon announced his decision 
on June 22, 1972, five days after the Watergate break-in. Nixon told 
a news conference that he would stay by his ‘middle position’ in 
support of the House-passed H.R.l,” for which the option paper 
said only twenty Senate votes could be won (Burke and Burke, 185). 
Through a parliamentary maneuver, the Ribicoff compromise plan 
did come before the full Senate on October 4, 1972, but without 
presidential support it was defeated 52 to 34. 

By this juncture the president had discovered that there was po¬ 
litical capital in the welfare issue, and probably more capital in the 
issue itself than in the legislation he had introduced. By the un¬ 
relenting emphasis on the “pathology-generating” features of relief¬ 
giving, Nixon and Moynihan had played to the growing climate of 
relief-restrictiveness, if they had not done much to create it. As 
he previewed his 1972 presidential election campaign Nixon thus 
decided “that it would be wiser to have an issue than an enacted 
plan” (Burke and Burke, 185). 

The lack of genuine support by the White House for a compromise 
welfare reform bill, together with the president’s exploitation of 
the welfare issue to garner votes in the presidential campaign, angered 
and dismayed many liberals who had supported welfare reform. 
They, too, came to distrust Nixon’s motives. One of them was Hyman 
Bookbinder, Washington Representative of the American Jewish 
Committee, who wrote Moynihan on November 14, 1972: 

I knew that HR-1 was dead about six months ago. It was clear 
that the Administration felt it could not be saddled with a welfare 
program during an election year ... but my continuing participa- 



343 The Welfare Rights Movement 

tion in the support effort persuaded me that the bill never had the 
hearty backing it required from Pennsylvania Avenue. The several 
generalized Presidential pronouncements were welcome but they 
were made less than credible because of administrative inflexibility 
and intransigence on modest improvements that were being pro¬ 
posed. . . . 

But now, Pat, I come to the real purpose of this letter. While 
I do not approve of the catering to anti-welfare prejudices that are 
engaged in for political advantage, I can at least understand them. 
There are subtle considerations of timing and emphasis in any 
legislative effort. But what concerns me is that these anti-welfare 
prejudices have become so ingrained and so widespread that no 
real progress may be possible. And, above all, my reading [of the 
President's remarks] persuades me that he is himself the victim of 
some of the harshest prejudices and misinformation . . . (emphasis 
in original). 44 

Given all of these factors, there was reason to believe that FAP, 
had it been enacted, would have been administered in keeping with 
other Nixon policies, all of which were antagonistic to the poor. 
Stated in simplest terms, it was the relief explosion of the 1960s 
that had precipitated official efforts at reform. As a result of that 
expansion millions of people had come to receive benefits. Poverty 
in the United States had been substantially reduced and a step 
toward something like a national minimum income had in fact 
been taken. It was these gains that were the object of “reform." 


NWRO Lobbies Against Welfare “Reform” 

In the interim between the introduction of FAP in 1970 and its 
final defeat in 1972 the issue of welfare reorganization was high on 
the national political agenda. Despite the furor we advised George 
that NWRO should not plunge into the congressional maelstrom. We 
thought NWRO continually overestimated its effectiveness in the 
lobbying process. At the time NWRO had virtually no grassroots 
base left; far from remedying that circumstance (if it could have been 
remedied), the congressional struggle over the president’s proposals 
would surely be a long and exhausting one, and just as surely it 


44 Quoted with permission of Hyman Bookbinder. 




344 


Poor People’s Movements 

would divert the whole of NWRO’s resources away from its base. 
Instead we thought that NWRO should turn back to the streets and 
welfare centers, with the aged and the working poor as new targets. 
The barrage of publicity over Nixon’s proposals to supplement low 
wages might give a new legitimacy to campaigns to mobilize the 
working poor to obtain supplements through general assistance pro¬ 
grams in the northern states. 

As before, we argued our view by pointing to the continued de¬ 
fiance among the unorganized poor themselves. While the black 
movement as a whole was ebbing in this period, applications for 
public assistance remained high, and approval levels wer still high 
as well. Although organized recipient groups were beginning to en¬ 
counter resistance from welfare administrators in the changed politi¬ 
cal climate following Nixon’s election, the eligibility process still 
remained relatively open. The impact of years of protest on policies 
and practices would take time to be reversed. Significant cases deal¬ 
ing with eligibility restrictions were reaching the Supreme Court 
in this period and the decisions being handed down were still fav¬ 
orable. HEW could not implement restrictive policies all at once. 
In fact, under the impact of the Nixon recession, the rolls were rising 
even more rapidly than before. 

But George decided otherwise. In reaching this decision he was 
constrained by a number of organizational problems. He was not, 
to begin with, unaware of the diminishing membership base and 
of the weakening militancy of local groups. It was therefore far 
from clear that an infrastructure existed that could develop orga¬ 
nizing campaigns among new groups; it was also not clear that a 
sufficient grassroots base remained to mount resistance campaigns 
against the rising tide of welfare restrictiveness. To have announced 
either kind of campaign, only to have it fail, would have revealed 
NWRO’s weakness at its base. In any case he could not turn the 
organization toward multi-constituency organizing (e.g., toward the 
aged or the working poor)—not, that is, without the killing internal 
struggle with the established recipient leadership that had prevented 
such a turn at earlier points. 

On the other hand, there were strong inducements to join the 
fray over welfare reform. NWRO had a large national office staff 
by this time. The operation was expensive to maintain, especially 
in a political climate that made fund-raising increasingly difficult. 
The congressional struggle over welfare reform promised to give 
NWRO high visibility, thus enhancing its ability to raise funds. 



345 The Welfare Rights Movement 

Finally, the interest of many groups and of the press in the issue 
of welfare reorganization promised to give extraordinary visibility 
to the representatives of a relief recipients’ organization who joined 
in the lobbying process. The opportunity to achieve a large measure 
of national recognition for NWRO’s top leadership was at hand 
and that was a powerful incentive. The decision, then, was to lobby. 

One measure of the lure of recognition and of organizational 
rewards which the pending debate over welfare reorganization held 
for NWRO is the fact that there was, at the outset, considerable un¬ 
certainty among the leadership as to whether the family assistance 
proposals should be supported or opposed. However, that did not 
matter as much as the chance to lobby mattered. The NWRO 
intended to seize the opportunity to enhance its waning visibility; 
the substance of its position could be developed over time. 

A somewhat uncertain decision was first reached to support the 
bill. The objective was to improve it: to raise the minimum payment 
level (“up the nixon plan!”), to eliminate workfare penalties, and 
to introduce various substantive and procedural rights. By the sum¬ 
mer of 1970, however, NWRO turned against FAP and tried to defeat 
it (“zap fap !”). 45 Thereafter it worked assiduously to produce 
analyses of the veritable melange of alternative bills and amendments 
that were placed before Congress, and it distributed these analyses 
widely through its newsletter and other mailings; it lobbied inces¬ 
santly with individual congressmen; it helped organize anti-FAP 
caucuses within Congress; and, finally, it tried to rally local WROs 
across the country to devote themselves to lobbying activities, such 
as buttonholing their local congressmen and participating in various 
demonstrations in the nation’s capital. From the fall of 1969 onward, 
in short, NWRO devoted a substantial part of its resources to try¬ 
ing to shape the course of welfare legislation in Congress. 

How effective was NWRO’s campaign against welfare reform? The 
answer to this question is obviously central to the argument of this 
book. NWRO itself took generous, if not full, credit for the defeat 
of the bill. But the facts lead to the opposite conclusion; its in¬ 
fluence was negligible. 

The only point at which NWRO had some, but hardly critical, in¬ 
fluence on an important outcome occurred in the vote of the Senate 


45 For a discussion of NWRO’s shifting position on FAP, see Burke and Burke (159— 
165). 




346 


Poor People’s Movements 

Finance Committee in November 1970, after the House had first 
passed the bill. The Senate Finance Committee defeated the plan 
10 to 6, and the majority included three liberal Democrats who 
might have been expected to support the bill (Eugene McCarthy, 
Minnesota; Fred Harris, Oklahoma; and Albert Gore, Tennessee). 
NWRO lobbyists claim that they influenced the votes of both Harris 
and McCarthy, and judging from other forms of support which these 
particular senators gave NWRO over the years, this claim is reason¬ 
able. However, Gore’s vote was not influenced by NWRO. He had 
just been defeated after thirty-two years in the Senate, in part because 
he had been a special target of Republican midterm campaign strat¬ 
egists; his vote was retaliation against the Nixon Administration. 46 
Therefore, were it not for NWRO, that early and important com¬ 
mittee vote might have been 8 to 8. Under the rules of the com¬ 
mittee, however, a tie vote is a losing vote, and thus the bill would 
not have been reported out, whether NWRO had lobbied or not. 47 

In June 1971 the House (by a smaller margin) again enacted a 
version of the bill. Once more the crucial struggle was played out 
in the Senate where Long’s committee bottled up the bill. NWRO’s 
role during this period was chiefly to weaken liberal proponents of 
the bill by dividing and confusing them. If blacks were seemingly 
opposed to the bill, it became more difficult for some white liberals 
to support it. Nevertheless a liberal coalition formed under the 
'leadership of Abraham Ribicoff, whom NWRO denounced. At 
several junctures this coalition managed to negotiate compromises 
with conservatives and with administration representatives. By this 
time, however, the president was backing away from his own bill 
and would not sanction the compromises. 

Moreover these particular events were of no great significance, 
taken by themselves. Chairman Long and others had made it abun¬ 
dantly clear that they would organize a filibuster should the bill ever 


46 Moynihan claims that, another negative vote—Anderson (N.M.)—was influenced by 
Harris, and thus indirectly by NWRO (533). Burke and Burke do not confirm this 
claim; nor does Mitchell I. Ginsberg, the New York City Human Resources Administra¬ 
tor and the most active lobbyist for FAP. 

47 One member of the committee, Hartke from Indiana, was absent from this crucial 
vote A liberal, Hartke had just barely survived the midterm election. Burke and Burke 
are silent on the question of how he might have voted had ne been present. Moynihan 
also gives no clue, and Ginsberg also finds it difficult to say what his vote would have 
been. In any event there is no evidence that he was influenced by NWRO, nor did 
NWRO’s lobbyists make such a claim. 




347 


The Welfare Rights Movement 

reach the floor of the Senate. In the judgment of various persons 
close to the congressional struggle, such as Mitchell I. Ginsberg, it 
would have been impossible to find the votes to invoke cloture. And 
even if one grants the extremely remote assumption that cloture 
might have been invoked, the opponents of the bill would have had 
many other chances to destroy it through repeal, or to emasculate it 
by crippling amendments. The point is that the test of a lobbying 
strategy is not merely momentary success, if even that can be achieved; 
the test is the capacity to sustain influence year after year in the 
face of a continuing and determined opposition. 

NWRO’s ineffectiveness in the Congress is further illustrated by 
another incident. During the course of the welfare debate Congress 
enacted an extremely restrictive amendment to the Social Security 
Act. It will be recalled that congressional concern over the welfare 
rises had begun to be expressed some years earlier, as marked by the 
enactment of training and employment programs in 1967. Under 
the original “Work Incentives Now” program, welfare files were 
presumably to be combed for people eligible for training and work, 
who were then to be registered as “ready for employment.” In the 
late 1960s welfare administrators implemented this program laxly 
for fear of the possible repercussions in the ghettos. But in late 
1971 Congress acted to put teeth into the program with an amend¬ 
ment specifying that any state which failed to refer to employment 
at least 15 percent of the average number of individuals registered 
during the year as “ready for employment” would be penalized by 
the subtraction of one percentage point from its matching funds for 
each percent by which referrals fell below 15 percent. The amend¬ 
ment was passed in the Senate without a single dissenting vote 
despite the fact that NWRO’s lobbying presence was at its peak 
during this period (Burke and Burke, 164). 

But NWRO did not lobby simply to be effective in the legislative 
process. NWRO and its leadership obtained enormous visibility and 
substantial resources in the course of the struggle over welfare re¬ 
organization, thus reinforcing the illusion of its influence. Consistent 
with this illusion NWRO's leadership determined to make its 
presence felt as the Democratic and Republican parties formulated 
their campaign platforms in the spring and summer of 1972. These 
events indicate just how invested NWRO had become in electoral 
politics and in an image of itself as being influential in electoral poli¬ 
tics. This turn had been signaled by George at the convention in 1970 
when he announced: “We’ve got to get into lobbying, political 



348 


Poor People’s Movements 

organization, and ward and precinct politics” (Martin, 131). With 
that rallying cry a welfare recipients’ organization which no longer 
had a constituency capable of storming a welfare center anywhere in 
the country issued a call through its newsletter in November 1971 
to storm the American electoral system. This statement by Beulah 
Sanders, who was elected chairman of the National Coordinating 
Committee in 1971, deserves to be quoted completely if only to 
convey the full measure of the unreality which had come to dominate 
the organization: 

At the last NWRO Convention, there was a clear mandate from the 
membership that NWRO take a major role in the various political 
arenas all across this country. In keeping with that mandate your 
chairman consented to testify both in Boston and New York before 
the New Democratic Coalition’s regional platform hearings. 

NWRO also has played a significant role in the building of the 
National Women’s Political Caucus and we are helping to build 
similar caucuses in several states. The upcoming year is going to 
be most active politically for the entire country and a very significant 
one (politically) for WRO’s across the country. So with the slogan 
of Bread, Justice and Dignity, let’s unite all our brothers and sis¬ 
ters in the struggle and hard fight ahead. 

For it is our intent to develop a large welfare rights caucus at 
the Democratic convention. We must begin on local levels to make 
sure that our members are registered to vote, and that we begin 
as early as possible to vote for the various delegate seats by demand¬ 
ing that there be equal representation for our members. We must 
begin to link up with other organizations and run candidates for 
the various local, state, and national offices. Politics has in the past 
been a very dirty and closed business in this country. 

We must be about changing that. For we have seen in the past 
what has happened to candidates who have gotten the support of 
the people but decide that the old line party powers are who they 
need to be beholden to. So the burden is going to be on us to 
pick and support candidates for office whom we can trust. 

It is going to be very important for us to know what is happen¬ 
ing in your local areas so that we can work from a national level 
to develop our plans for the coming year. So begin now: get together 
with other groups, especially women’s groups, to discuss your strate¬ 
gies. As welfare recipients who represent a major portion of the 
poor in this country, the burden is ours to keep the goal of 
“adequate income” in the forefront as the most vital issue in any 
and all of our campaigns. “Welfare Reform” will be a vital issue 



319 The Welfare Rights Movement 

in 72, but we must not get caught up in that trap, as so many 
of the liberal candidates and organizations have, for we are about 
more than just “Welfare Reform.” We are about a “Guaranteed 
Adequate Income” for all Americans; and that means a true re¬ 
distribution of this country’s resources in such a way as to guarantee 
he right to a decent life to all Americans, be they man, woman, 
hild, black, white or red, working or non-working. 

In June 1972 the NWRO leadership announced to its member¬ 
ship: “We will go to the Democratic National Convention in the 
same manner we have always dealt with an unjust system—with 
representation on the inside, but our real strength on the outside, 
in the streets/’ A major demonstration was planned, and at a huge 
financial cost to the organization and its affiliates about 500 leaders, 
members, and organizers actually attended. Given the extraordinary 
delegate composition of that particular Democratic convention, 
NWRO obtained 1,000 votes (about 1,600 were needed) supporting 
a plank calling for a guaranteed income of $6,500 for a family of 
four. It was heady stuff. “We lost,” NWRO announced in a post¬ 
convention newsletter, “but in a spiritual sense, we had won.” (Just 
how great a spiritual victory had been won was to be revealed in 
November when in part because of McGovern's advocacy, at least 
in the early months of the campaign, of a guaranteed income of 
$4,000 for a family of four, he was obliterated by the voters.) As for 
the Republican convention, there was no spiritual victory; it was, 
NWRO proclaimed, “No place for the poor.” 


The Demise of the National Welfare 
Rights Organization 

A good number of local organizers had come in this period to think 
that there was “no place for the poor” in NWRO's national office, 
either. NWRO's national convention in 1971 was the setting for a 
revolt led by some of the senior organizers who objected to the fact 
that they were being provided with so little assistance from the 
national office at a time when local organizing was foundering. Local 
organizers were intent on expanding their membership so they 
could lobby at the state and local level against welfare cuts of 



350 


Poor People’s Movements 

various kinds, and they wanted resources from the national office 
to aid in that process. From their perspective the national office, be¬ 
cause of its emphasis on national lobbying, had come to give the 
building of local membership a low priority. They were also con¬ 
cerned about the adverse effect on local organizing of NWRO’s re¬ 
peated calls for demonstrations in the nation’s capital (and later at 
the presidential nominating conventions). These demonstrations 
drew local recipient leaders away from local organizing activities and 
the travel costs depleted local treasuries, already nearly empty. 

The character of the 1971 convention itself helped to trigger dis¬ 
contents among organizers. It was staged to dramatize NWRO’s 
lobbying and coalitional role. The featured speaker was Senator 
George McGovern, who was then preparing to run for the Demo¬ 
cratic presidential nomination but who had not yet been over¬ 
whelmed with speaking invitations. McGovern had agreed to intro¬ 
duce (but not to endorse) a guaranteed income bill which had been 
drafted by NWRO, and the leadership hoped by his presence at 
the conference to give their bill national prominence. Other notables, 
such as Shirley Chisholm and Gloria Steinem, also graced the 
speaker’s platform. The organizers pointed out that no one was talk 
ing about organizing and that was very troubling to them. 

Moreover the structure of NWRO and of the conventions had by 
this time effectively separated organizers and recipient leaders. The 
recipient leaders met separately with a few members of the national 
staff, presumably to set policy; organizers were not consulted. In 
this sense, it was truly a poor people’s organization, and organizers 
had developed a certain resentment about their exclusion (although 
the organizational structure was one which they had themselves 
created). As a practical matter most of the recipient delegates from 
local groups had little more than the most formalistic role in policy¬ 
making; the influential were the state representatives who comprised 
the National Coordinating Committee and the Executive Committee. 
These women had become so famous and so intimidating to the 
typical local recipient leader that they dominated the convention plat¬ 
forms and the policymaking process. It was left for the delegates 
simply to ratify what their leadership recommended. For all prac¬ 
tical purposes, the conventions in the 1970s were arranged to benefit 
the national leaders. Organizers and most delegates felt left out, 
shunted aside by the sweep of NWRO’s large legislative objectives, 
its visiting dignitaries, its press conferences, its prearranged agendas. 



351 The Welfare Rights Movement 

And they were bewildered and bored by the hours devoted to pass¬ 
ing amendments to NWRO’s intricate constitution and debating 
resolutions regarding legislative programs which seemed remote from 
the everyday realities of their existence. The anger was gone, the 
spontaneity was gone, and the sense of community, solidarity, and 
militancy were gone. All had given way to the preoccupation with 
the maintenance of organizational structure and lobbying activities. 

The organizers’ complaints, however, met with little response from 
either the national staff or the National Coordinating Committee. In 
the continuing contest over resources and priorities the national 
leadership consistently won, mainly because of their superior capacity 
to attract money and their superior capacity to attract publicity, even 
when the publicity was generated by the activities of local welfare 
rights groups. Consequently many organizers, especially the more 
experienced ones, turned away from NWRO following the conven¬ 
tion in 1971. Until that time they had shown great loyalty, and 
could be depended upon to abide by the decisions of the national 
leadership. But no longer. NWRO had first lost its membership 
base; it then lost the allegiance of many of its senior organizers. 

One measure of how little importance, in practice, was assigned 
to the grassroots in these years is revealed by the distribution of 
NWRO’s national budget. In the early years a modest proportion 
had gone to support the salaries and other expenses of some local 
organizers, and another part of the budget paid for national staff 
whose main function at that time was to provide services to local 
groups. But in the 1970s virtually all of the funds raised went to 
support national office operations. NWRO had a rather sizable budget 
in those years, usually well in excess of $250,000 per year. But 
precious little of it found its way to the local level. A large bureauc¬ 
racy, as these things go, had developed in Washington; the staff on 
payroll ranged from thirty to fifty persons. The periodic meetings 
of the Executive Committee and of the National Coordinating Com¬ 
mittee were expensive. The research, writing, and publication activi¬ 
ties associated with lobbying were expensive. National demonstra¬ 
tions were extremely costly; the planning and execution of the Chil¬ 
dren’s March for Survival, for example, is estimated to have cost 
more than one hundred thousand dollars alone. In other words 
local groups, despite their much inferior fund-raising capabilities, 
were largely left to fend for themselves. 

Many more complaints were voiced by the remaining local or- 



352 


Poor People’s Movements 

ganizers and recipients at the convention of 1973. Faith Evans, who 
was then acting executive director of NWRO, told a reporter for 
the Washington Post after the convention that 

NWRO spent its $300,000 budget (in 1972) fighting President 
Nixon’s welfare reform plan in Washington and fighting for more 
political representation for the poor at the Democratic and Repub¬ 
lican Presidential conventions. At the NWRO convention, folks kept 
telling me for the past two years National has sort of withdrawn and 
drained resources from us and we’ve been struggling out here and 
we didn’t get nothing back. If we get $100,000 in the next six 
months, I anticipate spending 80 percent in the field. 

And in a postconvention newsletter, the NWRO leadership an¬ 
nounced: 

There was a mandate put on the National Office by the delegates 
at the Convention for us to reorient our priorities and begin re¬ 
developing our field operation, so that we can provide continuing 
build-up and support to local organizing groups. It has been our 
intention in the National Office for some time now since the end 
of the FAP fight to begin that process. The National Office has now 
committed itself to providing most of its resources to help local 
people organize in their communities. 

But it was too late. The chance to organize the grassroots had passed, 
not least because black unrest had passed. And with the demise o. 
the black movement, there were no resources to be haa tor organizing. 
Private elites, like government before them, had begun to with¬ 
draw support for organizing among the urban black poor. As one 
funding source after another put it, “We are no longer emphasizing 
poverty.” Consequently NWRO rapidly fell deeply into debt. In the 
fall of 1974 Johnnie Tillmon (NWRO’s first national chairman), who 
had succeeded George as permanent executive director after his 
resignation in December 1972, issued a “Master Plan for Fund- 
Raising for the National Welfare Rights Organization.” The fund¬ 
raising goal was $1 million annually for six years and it called mainly 
upon the poor to send in contributions. But there was no response— 
not from the poor nor from anyone else. Several months later NWRO 
went bankrupt and the national office was closed. 

NWRO failed to achieve its own objective—to build an enduring 
mass organization through which the poor could exert influence. 
Certainly NWRO did not endure; it survived a mere six or seven 



353 The Welfare Rights Movement 

years, then collapsed. Just as certainly, it did not attract a mass 
base: at its peak, the national membership count did not exceed 
25,000 adults. And it is our opinion that it had relatively little in¬ 
fluence in the lobbying process to which it progressively devoted 
most of its resources. 

But in the final analysis we do not judge NWRO a failure for 
these reasons. We ourselves did not expect that NWRO would en¬ 
dure or that it would attract a mass base or become influential in 
the lobbying process. Rather, we judge it by another criterion: 
whether it exploited the momentary unrest among the poor to obtain 
the maximum concessions possible in return for the restoration of 
quiescence. It is by that criterion that it failed. 

NWRO had a slogan—“Bread and Justice”—and NWRO under¬ 
stood that for the people at the bottom a little bread is a little justice. 
Had it pursued a mobilizing strategy, encouraging more and more 
of the poor to demand welfare, NWRO could perhaps have left a 
legacy of another million families on the rolls. Millions of potentially 
eligible families had still not applied for aid, especially among the 
aged and working poor, and hundreds of thousands of potential 
AFDC recipients were still being denied relief in local centers. To 
have mobilized these poor, however, NWRO’s leaders would have 
had to evacuate the legislative halls and presidential delegate cau¬ 
cuses, and reoccupy the relief centers; they would have had to 
relinquish testifying and lobbying, and resume agitating. They did 
not and an opportunity to obtain “bread and justice” for more of 
the poor was forfeited. 

The parallel with the relief movement in the Great Depression is 
striking. Poor people exerted influence just as long as they mobilized 
to disrupt local welfare practices and to demand relief, at once forc¬ 
ing concessions from welfare departments and generating pressure 
for federal concessions as well. Except for widespread disorder and 
deepening local fiscal strains, the Roosevelt Administration would 
hardly have ventured into the emergency relief business. Organizers, 
however, soon turned to developing intricate national, state, and local 
structures as well as to cultivating regular relationships with public 
officials. Its leaders were soon converted from agitators to lobbyists, 
its followers became progressively inert, and the capacity to capi¬ 
talize on instability to secure economic concessions for the poor was 
lost. Finally, with the passing of mass unrest, the Workers’ Alliance 
collapsed. The relief organization of the 1960s met the same fate, 
and by the same processes. 



Poor People’s Movements 


354 


A Closing Note on the Postwar Black Movement 

By the close of the 1960s, the black movement which began in the 
postwar period had. made some modest economic gains. A large 
proportion of the unemployed and impoverished masses in the cities 
were receiving welfare grants. Others had benefitted from the ex¬ 
pansion of municipal payrolls, an expansion stimulated in part by 
the federal programs inaugurated during the Great Society years. 
The economic boom in the late 1960s also enabled more blacks to 
gain employment in the private sector. Taken together, enlarged 
public and private employment had somewhat diminished the overall 
rate of nonwhite unemployment. 

By the mid-1970s, all of these gains had been substantially eroded. 
There were several reasons. For one, as black protest subsided, federal 
concessions were withdrawn. With the ascent to the presidency of 
Richard Nixon, the administration of welfare by states and localities 
became more restrictive, partly in response to threatening rhetoric 
and restrictive regulations promulgated by the federal government. 
At the same time, the Great Society programs that had provided 
resources and justification for black protest were stifled, their activi¬ 
ties curbed, and their funds curtailed or eliminated in favor of new 
revenue-sharing or block grant programs. Whatever else the new 
revenue-sharing formulas meant, they slowly redirected monies away 
from the older cities to richer cities, suburbs, and towns, while within 
each locality some of the monies which had previously provided jobs 
and services in the ghettos were spent to fund police departments and 
to reduce taxes. 

Meanwhile, as federal policies curtailed the public programs which 
had given aid to the urban poor, the persisting recession and rampant 
inflation that characterized the 1970s caused a sharp reduction in the 
standard of living of already depressed groups. Unemployment rates 
were, as usual, much higher among blacks; and inflation rapidly 
destroyed the purchasing power of welfare grants, which, in the 
hostile political climate of the seventies, were rarely increased, and 
were surely not increased to keep pace with the rising cost of living. 
By the mid-1970s, the real income of welfare recipients in many 
states had been cut by as much as half. 

These were national trends. Most of the minority poor were 
located in the older northern cities, where the impact of the eco- 



355 The Welfare Rights Movement 

nomic trends of the 1970s was even more severe and where the effects 
of inflation and recession were exacerbated by related political devel¬ 
opments. The so-called “urban fiscal crisis” of the 1970s signaled a 
concerted effort by political and economic elites to reduce the real 
income of the bottom stratum of the American working class, largely 
by slashing the benefits they had won from the public sector. 

The processes underlying the fiscal crisis of the cities had been 
under way for at least two decades. In the years after World War II, 
the manufacturing base of many older cities weakened. The decline 
in central-city manufacturing had a number of causes. In part, it 
resulted from the movement of both older plants and new capital 
to the South and abroad in search of cheaper labor. In part, it was 
the result of the movement of plants to the suburban ring, where 
labor costs were not necessarily cheaper but where federal invest¬ 
ments in highways, housing, and other service systems reduced the 
costs of doing business in various other ways. In part, it was the 
result of the pattern of federal investments in defense and space 
exploration which bypassed the older manufacturing cities for the 
new cities of the South and West. These trends in manufacturing 
were intertwined with the flight of commerce and of the more affluent 
classes from the older central cities to the suburban rings and to the 
“southern rim” of the nation. (Meanwhile, with the aid of federal 
urban-renewal subsidies, the downtown areas of many of these cities 
were redeveloped with huge office towers and luxury apartment 
complexes to house the increasingly complex administrative apparatus 
and the managerial personnel of national and international corpora¬ 
tions whose plants had come to be located elsewhere.) 

It was, of course, during this same period that large numbers of 
black and Hispanic people migrated to the cities. By the mid-1960s, 
these displaced and chronically impoverished people had become 
rebellious. In turn, their demands helped to trigger greater demands 
by other groups, such as municipal employees. As mayors struggled 
to appease these insurgent urban groups with jobs, benefits, and 
services, municipal budgets rose precipitately. But so long as the 
cities were in turmoil the political price exacted by the insurgents 
had to be paid in order to restore order. Accordingly, municipalities 
raised tax rates despite their weakening economies, and state gov¬ 
ernments and the federal government increased grants-in-aid to 
municipalities. By these means, the cities stayed afloat fiscally, and 
they stayed afloat politically as well. Over all, the share of the 



356 


Poor People's Movements 

American national product channeled into the public sector rose 
dramatically in the 1960s, and the largest part of that rise was due to 
mounting municipal and state budgets. 

By the early 1970s, urban strife had subsided; a degree of political 
stability had been restored, in no small part as a result of the 
concessions granted in the 1960s. At the same time, however, the 
disparity between expenditures and revenues in the older cities 
widened dramatically, for the long-term economic trends that were 
undercutting the manufacturing base of these cities worsened rapidly 
under the impact of the recessionary policies of the Nixon-Ford 
administrations. As unemployment rates rose in the central cities, 
municipal revenues declined, for much of these revenues was earned 
through sales and income taxes. Moreover, once the turmoil of the 
1960s ebbed, the federal and state governments could and did reduce 
grants-in-aid to the older central cities, thereby widening the dis¬ 
parities in the city budgets even more. The situation thus became 
ripe for a mobilization of national and local business interests to 
bring expenditures into line with revenues by cutting the cost of the 
populist politics in the cities. 

The trigger for this mobilization was the threat of a default by 
New York City in 1975. Banks with large holdings of New York City 
securities became unnerved over the rapid increase in short-term 
borrowing, and refused to float loans until the city “put its house 
in order.” Whatever the bankers intended, their action precipitated 
the theatrical spectacular of a New York City default. The city did 
not default, but the drama made it possible to impose entirely new 
definitions of the urban fiscal situation upon the populations of the 
cities across the nation. There simply was no money, it was said; 
municipal budgets had to be balanced. In the face of that definition, 
urban pressure groups became frightened, confused, and helpless, 
and were transformed into passive witnesses to a municipal politics 
in which they had been active participants only a short time earlier. 

With the threat of default as the justification, locally based business 
interests (who historically have often operated under the aegis of 
municipal reform groups) moved to restructure urban policies. On 
the one hand, they insisted upon slashes in payrolls, wages, and 
benefits and in services to neighborhoods. On the other hand, they 
argued that to bolster declining city revenues, states and munici¬ 
palities would have to make new and larger concessions to business: 
reduced taxes, improved services, enlarged subsidies, and a relaxation 
of public regulation in matters such as environmental pollution. And 



357 The Welfare Rights Movement 

while New York City’s plight captured the headlines, it was only the 
exemplary case, the means that was used to instruct poor and 
working-class groups in other cities not to resist similar and even 
more drastic cost-cutting campaigns by local elites. 

Nor, appearances aside, did the federal government remain aloof 
from these urban fiscal troubles. The crisis provided legitimation 
for the imposition of a national economic policy to reduce public- 
sector expenditures in the United States, a policy much in accord 
with national corporate interests, which claimed that American ; n- 
dustry was suffering from a severe shortage of capital. The gradual 
reduction of federal grants-in-aid to the older central cities, com¬ 
bined with the federal government’s refusal to aid cities on the verge 
of bankruptcy, combined to bring about a shift in the balance be¬ 
tween public and private sectors in the United States. Since state 
and local budgets accounted for two-thirds of total government ex¬ 
penditures, they bore the brunt of the cuts. Whatever position one 
takes on the seriousness of the capital crisis in the United States, 
there is not much question that this method of solving the problem 
of capital formation places the heaviest burden on the lowest income 
stratum of the population (the very groups that are also least 
likely to benefit if the position of American capital subsequently 
strengthens and a period of prosperity ensues). Under the guise of 
the urban fiscal crisis, in short, local and national business interests 
joined to reassert control over the municipal level of the state 
apparatus, for it was on the municipal level that popular struggles 
by working-class groups had forced some concessions in the 1960s. 

The impact of these political developments on urban minorities 
was clear from the outset. Services to neighborhoods were reduced, 
and much more so in impoverished neighborhoods than in better-off 
ones. Municipal workers were laid off in large numbers, and the 
overwhelming impact of these layoffs was felt by the minority people 
who were hired during and after the turmoil of the 1960s. In New 
York City, for example, two-fifths of the blacks on the city’s work 
force (and half of the Hispanics) were fired at the same time as 
recession-induced unemployment reached near-depression levels. For 
many of the unemployed, welfare eventually became the only possible 
recourse, a fact that lent the growing welfare restrictiveness of the 
period a special cruelty. The urban crisis, in short, had become the 
rationale for a mobilization against the urban working class, and 
especially against its enlarging minority segment. 

Finally, and much to the point of this book, blacks were assaulted 



358 


Poor People’s Movements 

in another way as well. The events of the urban fiscal crisis deprived 
them even of the limited influence in urban politics ordinarily 
wielded by the vote. As the fiscal crisis deepened, with the result that 
financial and business leaders effectively took control of municipal 
budget decisions, the elected political stratum of the older northern 
cities was supplanted. Such gains in city and state electoral repre¬ 
sentation as blacks had made during the sixties were clearly of little 
consequence in resisting the slashing of municipal budgets when 
bankers and businessmen were, for all practical purposes, making the 
budget decisions. 

The possibilities for reversing this campaign against the urban 
poor through ordinary political processes would not have been bright 
under any circumstances. As financial and business leaders took con¬ 
trol, however, efforts by groups to lobby with city and state elected 
officials to save their services or their jobs became fatuous, simply 
because the events of the crisis deprived these officials of whatever 
authority they had once had. City and state governments have always 
been in large measure dependent for their revenues on locally raised 
taxes, which in turn hinge on business prosperity. They have also 
been dependent for debt financing on private credit markets. These 
arrangements meant that state and local officials were always ulti¬ 
mately vulnerable to those who made investment and lending deci¬ 
sions. Enlarging fiscal discrepancies in the municipal and state 
budgets made this vulnerability acute and the dependency of elected 
officials blatant. (Indeed, in New York City, businessmen and bankers 
used the crisis to formally restructure municipal political authority, 
depriving elected officials of even their customary formal budgetary 
powers.) 

Still, the new black leaders, including the black city politicians 
who were caught in the fiscal crisis, continued to rely upon electoral 
politics to moderate the impact of the cutbacks on the ghettos. But 
this strategy was bound to fail. 

This is not to say that mass protest was clearly possible in the mid- 
1970s. One can never predict with certainty when the “heavings and 
rumblings of the social foundations’’ will force up large-scale de¬ 
fiance, although changes of great magnitude were at work. Who, 
after all, could have predicted the extraordinary mobilization of 
black people beginning in 1955? Nor can one calculate with certainty 
the responses of elites to mass disruption. There are no blueprints to 
guide movements of the poor. But if organizers and leaders want 
to help those movements emerge, they must always proceed as if 



359 The Welfare Rights Movement 

protest were possible. They may fail. The time may not be right. 
But then, they may sometimes succeed. 


References 

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Bowler, Kenneth M. The Nixon Guaranteed Income Proposal. Cam¬ 
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Burke, Vincent J., and Burke, Vee. Nixon’s Good Deed: Welfare 
Reform. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974. 

Cloward, Richard A., and Piven, Frances Fox. The Politics of Tur¬ 
moil: Essays on Poverty, Race, and the Urban Crisis. New York: Pantheon 
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Donovan, John C. The Politics of Poverty. 2nd ed. New York: Pegasus 
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Durbin, Elizabeth. Welfare and Employment. New York: Praeger 
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Evans, Rowland, and Novak, Robert. Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exer¬ 
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Fiske, Mary Ann. “The Politics of the Claiming Minority: Social 
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Gelb, Joyce, and Sardell, Alice, “Strategies for the Powerless: The Wel¬ 
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Jackson, Larry R., and Johnson, William A. Protest by the Poor. Lex 
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King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. New York: The New 
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Poor People's Movements 360 

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Sardell, Alice. “The Minimum Standards Campaign: A Case of 
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Index 


Abbott, Edith, 54 n. 

Abernathy, Ralph, 333 n. 
aged, programs for, 31, 266 n. 
Agricultural Adjustment Act, 110 
agriculture: labor, 184, 185, 187, 189- 
193, 205n., 269; New Deal and, 110, 
190, 196-7; southern, 182-93, 196- 
197; World War I, 189-90; World 
War II, 190-1. See also farmers 
Agriculture Department, 192n. 

Aid to Families with Dependent Chil¬ 
dren (AFDC), 264, 266-7, 273, 
274n., 302-4, 322, 325, 335, 353 
aircraft industry, 166, 171-2 
Akron, Ohio, 118; Central Labor 
Union, 134; rubber industry, 133-5, 
136, 146, 148-9 

Alabama, 182n.; civil rights, 199, 208- 
211, 226, 238-46, 248-52, 256; textile 
strike, 125. See also place names 
Alabama, University of, 238-9 
Alaska, 252 

Albany (Ga.) Movement, 235-8, 240-1 
Alcorn, James L., 225 
Alexander, Will W., 197, 214 
Allen, Robert L., 182n. 

Allis-Chalmers, 166 

Amalgamated Association of Iron, Tin 
and Steel Workers, 117-18, 148n., 
158n. 

Amalgamated Clothing Workers of 
America, 114, 163n. 


American Association of Social Work¬ 
ers, 84n. 

American Civil Liberties Union, 55n. 
American Federation of Labor (AFL) , 
111-13, 115-16, 119, 134, 136, 146, 
152, 154; Buildings and Metal 
Trades Dept., 117, 118; and com¬ 
munists, 151-2; craft vs. industrial 
unions, 116-18, 133, 149; electoral 
system and, 163; membership, 116, 
154, 168; no-strike pledge, wartime, 
166; strikebreaking, 115, 117, 149n.; 
and unemployed, 70, 72 n. See also 
names of persons, unions 
American Labor Party, 162, 163n. 
American Legion, 109 
American Liberty League, 130, 132 
“American Plan," 120n. 

American Public Welfare Association, 
57 

American Railway Union, 104, 148n. 
American Workers Party, 75n. 

American Workers Union, 76 
Amsterdam News, 58 
Anaconda Copper Mine Co., 118 
Anderson, Clinton P., 346n. 

Anderson, Gusta E., 30n. 

Anderson, John, 136 

Anderson, Nels, 86 

antiwar movements, 22, 323, 325 

arbitration, 157-8. See also mediation 

Aristotle, 6 

Arizona, 246 


363 



Index 


364 


Arkansas, 109, 246 

armed forces: and civil disorders, 220, 
238, 243; discrimination in, 199, 
204; strikes, use in, 102-4, 172. See 
also National Guard 

Aronowitz, Stanley, lOOrt. 

Ash, Roberta, bn., 10, lln., 101n., 
105n., 106n. 

Associated Automobile Workers of 
America, 136 t?. 

Atlanta, Ga., 59-60, 62, 137, 149, 215, 
222-4 

auto industry, 108 t?., 114, 117, 126-7, 
135-6, 146, 149, 151-4, 160; strikes, 
121-2, 129-30, 136-40, 146, 148, 
149, 151-2, 155, 164; unemploy¬ 
ment, 46, 88, 121 

Auto Workers Union, 126n., 152 

Auto-Lite. See Electric Auto Lite Co. 

Automotive Industrial Workers Asso¬ 
ciation, 136n. 

Avery, Sewell L., 130 


Bailis, Lawrence N., 295, 298, 299, 
304n., 307, 308, 311, 326, 331n. 
Bakke, E. Wight, 48 t?., 49n., 56n. 
Balbus, Isaac D., 17n. 

Baltimore, 62, 70, 75, 267, 291 
Baltimore and Ohio R.R., 103 
banking, 110, 130 
Barnett, Ross, 238 
Baron, Harold, 216r?. 

Bartley, Numan V., 202, 212, 220 
Baruch, Bernard, 65 and n ., Ill 
Baton Rouge, La., 209 
behavior, transformation of, 3-5 
Bell, Inge P., 223 and n. 

Bendix, Reinhard, 106 
Benjamin, Herbert A., 52n., 73n., 76, 
81n., 86, 87, 88 t?., 89-90 
Berman, William, 1987?. 

Bernstein, Barton J., 198n. 

Bernstein, Irving, 45, 46 and n., 48n., 
48-50, 51 t?._, 52, 53n., 54??., 55, 61 
and n., 63, 65n., 68n., 70, 71, I00n., 
102rz., 107n., 108 t?., 109-11, 112n., 
113 and n., 114, 116, 118, 120-2t?., 
123, 125, 127t?., 128 and n 129, 
131-3, 135 and n., 142, 149, 154, 
155-7, 162 and n. 

Bethlehem Steel, 120??., 143 
Bilbo, Theodore, 109 


Bird, Caroline, 63 

Birmingham, Ala., 199, 237, 240-6, 256 

Birnbaum, Ezra, 30In., 302 

Black, Hugo L., 112n. 

blacks, 12-13, 17; acceptance of, 255; 
agricultural and rural, 184, 185, 
187, 189-92, 205n., 264, 269; “Black 
Power,” 253-5; civil rights ( see also 
civil rights), 181ft.; civil service 
and, 199, 228; coercion and vio¬ 
lence against, see violence, racial; 
decline of unrest, 331-4; defiance, 

203- 11, 22Iff., 229ff., 236ff.; domes¬ 
tics, 189, 192; economic advance and 
electoral organization, 255-8; eco¬ 
nomic reprisals against, 212-13; 
economic role, in South, 185-8; 
franchise and voting rights, 35-6, 
185, 187, 193, 196, 228, 231-5, 247- 
254; in Great Depression, 206; 
“Great Society” programs and, 254- 
255; industrial and urban workers, 
99n., 100n., 182, 184, 190-4, 203-6; 
insurgency, 189; leadership, 32-3, 

204- 5, 253-5, 271-2; migration out 
of South, 189-93, 197-8, 203, 265; 
New Deal (see also agencies) , 195— 
197; northern, 195, 198, 200-2, 205- 
208, 215ff., 226-7, 233n., 264ff.; 
office-holding in South, 254, 256; 
political economy, southern, 184-9; 
political parties and (see also par¬ 
ties)), 183-4, 184r?., 195-202, 206, 
213ff., 225ff., 252, 254; poor (see also 
welfare), 256, 354-9; post-World 
War I, 190, 194, 203-4; post-World 
War II, 12, 194, 204, 206, 354-8; 
press, 204; relief (see also wel¬ 
fare), 58, 204, 264-5, 268-9; rents 
and rent riots, 53-5. 53r?., 204; riot¬ 
ing, 206, 248, 265, 27